Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Phone Tag

Want to Feel Old? Think about the first phone call you ever made. Think about the last time you heard a phone that actually "rang" (with a bell). Shrinkwrapped, in a digression amid a fine post, gives a little history of this technology in a single lifetime.

Allow me a slight digression. When I was young, rotary telephones were used to dial exchanges based on local areas. (CO2-3991, for example, stood for COngress 2-3991; COngress was the exchange.) Long distance calls were routed through a switchboard where an operator mechanically, then electronically, switched my call to a new line which connected to a distant exchange. The process was relatively slow, labor intensive, and expensive. Long distance calls were done late at night and were kept short. You typically kept your phone for many, many years. The first, very simple, telephonic device was invented ~1860; Alexander Graham Bell made the first bi-directional phone call on March 10, 1876 and the first long distance call (~16 miles) five months later. The rotary phone was invented in 1888. The first trans-Atlantic call was in 1926. The push button phone began to replace rotary phones in my teens and early 20's, the 1970's. The pace of innovation began to increase rapidly after that and by today, my children all have cell phones and eschew land lines, they expect to upgrade every two years (they can upgrade as often as they like when they are paying for it, but when I am paying, two years is it) and expect their new phones to have new capabilities that their current phone doesn't have.

There is no question the telephone has been a transformative technology. Entire convenience and wealth generating industries now exist which were unimaginable when Alexander Graham Bell made his phone call. Phones are merging with computers (they already are computers, but not in the conventional sense); as all devices become connected and enmeshed in networks, new capabilities and structures are certain to arise; many of these structures are currently unimaginable.

That lifetime would be mine. I remember my first phone number, drummed into my head by parents and teachers in case I got on the wrong bus in second grade. It began with OWen6-. When we moved, the new number began with MIdway9-. My first girlfriend's phone number began with MOhawk7-.

And my grandmother was one of those switchboard operators.

My son is 15. He never knew his last girlfriend's phone number. What need had he to memorize it? It was programmed into our cell phones. If you put a dial phone in front of him I doubt he'd know what to do with it.