There was, in most homes, a small, boxy machine affixed to the wall, usually in the kitchen, and this machine was called a telephone. —Wikipedia, 2030
The home telephone had a good hundred-year run. Its days are numbered now. Its name, truncated to just phone, will live on, attached anachronistically to the diminutive general-purpose computers we carry around with us. (We really should have called them teles rather than phones.) But the object itself? It’s headed for history’s landfill, one layer up from the PalmPilot and the pager.
A remarkable thing about the telephone, in retrospect, is that it was a shared device. It was familial rather than personal. That entailed some complications.
In his monumental study of the forms of human interlocution, published posthumously in 1992 as the two-volume Lectures on Conversation, the sociologist Harvey Sacks explained how the arrival of the home telephone introduced a whole new role in conversation: that of the answerer. There was the caller, there was the called, and then there was the answerer, who might or might not also be the called. The caller would never know for sure who would answer the phone — it might be the called’s mom or dad rather than the called — and what kind of pre-conversational rigamarole might need to be endured, what pleasantries might need to be exchanged, what verbal gauntlet might need to be run, before the called would actually take the line. As for the answerer, he or she would not know, upon picking up the phone, whether he or she would also be playing the role of the called or would merely serve as the answerer, a kind of functionary or go-between. Each ringing of the telephone set off little waves of subterranean tension in the household: expectation, apprehension, maybe even some resentment.
“Is Amy there?”
In non-professional settings by and large, it’s from among the possible calleds that answerers are selected; answerer being now a merely potential resting state, where you’ve made preparations for turning out to be the called right off when you say “Hello.” Answerers can become calleds, or they can become non-calleds-but-talked-to, or they can remain answerers, in the sense of not being talked to themselves, and also having what turn out to be obligations incumbent on being an answerer-not-called; obligations like getting the called or taking a message for the called.
As I said: complications. And also: an intimate entwining of familial interests.
The answerer, upon realizing that he is not the called, Sacks continues, occupies “the least happy position” in the exchange.
Having done the picking up of the phone, they have been turned into someone at the mercy of the treatment that the caller will give them: What kind of jobs are they going to impose? Are they even going to talk to them? A lot of family world is implicated in the way those little things come out, an enormous amount of conflict turning on being always the answerer and never the called, and battles over who is to pick up the phone.
“I’ll get it!”
But what exactly will you get?
And so here we have this strange device, this technology, and it suddenly appears in the midst of the home, in the midst of the family, crouching there with all sorts of inscrutable purposes and intents. And yet — and this is the most remarkable thing of all — it doesn’t take long for it to be accommodated, to come to feel as though it’s a natural part of the home. Rather than remaking the world, Sacks argues, the telephone was subsumed into the world. The familial and social dynamics that the telephone revealed, with each ring, each uncradling of the receiver, are ones that were always already there.
Here’s an object introduced into the world 75 years ago. And it’s a technical thing which has a variety of aspects to it. It works only with voices, and because of economic considerations people share it … Now what happens is, like any other natural object, a culture secretes itself onto it in its well-shaped ways. It turns this technical apparatus which allows for conversation, into something in which the ways that conversation works are more or less brought to bear …
What we’re studying, then, is making the phone a reasonable part of the house. … We can read the world out of the phone conversation as well as we can read it out of anything else we’re doing. That’s a funny kind of thing, in which each new object becomes the occasion for seeing again what we can see anywhere; seeing people’s nastinesses or goodnesses and all the rest, when they do this initially technical job of talking over the phone. This technical apparatus is, then, being made at home with the rest of our world. And that’s a thing that’s routinely being done, and it’s the source for the failures of technocratic dreams that if only we introduced some fantastic new communication machine the world will be transformed. Where what happens is that the object is made at home in the world that has whatever organization it already has.
“Who is it?”
Image: detail of a Bell System advertisement, circa 1960.