A reasonable part of the house


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?”

“Who’s calling?”


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?”

“It’s me.”

Image: detail of a Bell System advertisement, circa 1960.

4 thoughts on “A reasonable part of the house

  1. Nick Post author

    Michael, Thanks. Excellent post.

    Regarding: “By contrast [with the landline] the cell phone allows for a form of privacy that is closer to mere anonymity rather than to a publicly acknowledge and respected right. The cell phone also encourages concealment, rather than disclosure. If my phone is silenced, there is hardly any necessary reason why anyone would know that I have received a call, and if I require privacy I simply take myself and my phone were no one can hear me. I absent myself, I make myself disappear and consequently make no claims upon the civility or trust of others in order to have my privacy.”

    I think that’s exactly right, although it’s also true that the cell phone allows for private conversations to be made public to a far greater degree than the landline allowed – in a way that makes big claims on civility. (But maybe that’s still an outgrowth of the social anonymity of the cell phone – ie, acting publicly among strangers can be a form of privacy.)

    On another note, after posting the above, I began to think how certain technological features of the home phone (or landline, as you put it) provided for a kind of transitional period leading up to the privacy of the cell phone. I’m thinking in particular of cordless phones, caller id systems, and answering machines. (These features all arrived after Sacks’s lectures on the phone, and, indeed, after my own experience growing up with a single, corded phone in the kitchen.)

  2. Linux Guru

    –There was the caller, there was the called, and then there was the
    — answerer, who might or might not also be the called.
    There was also the “hang up”. Being able to suddenly end an interaction by slamming down the hadset was an entirely new mode of expression.

  3. Samir

    @Linux Guru: Indeed. And don’t forget the “blank call”, that act of communication so pregnant with possibilities (at least in the mind of the answerer) that is no longer truly possible thanks to the advent of caller ID. And, since Nick’s considering the home phone, there was also the occasional dinnertime dispute over who’s use of the home phone was most responsible for the unexpected level of the monthly bill. I can recall a number of times my mother, itemized bill held aloft, demanding to know why I needed to have lengthy conversations with classmates after returning from school. But you’ve been with them for half the day… This is coming out of your next allowance.

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