America’s Calling: A Summary of the Social History of the Telephone

November 9, 2012 § Leave a comment

For the past two three weeks (thanks a lot, Sandy), my New Media’s Past and Future class has focused on the history of telephony. As frustrating as it was, the Hurricane That Ate Week Nine actually gave us a great deal to talk about re: similar, particularly in relation to the process by which the telephone became an “anonymous” technology. This connected nicely to discussions of the storm, since technologies that are normally invisible (the telephone, internet, even good old electricity) were very apparent during the hurricane, if only in their absence. It was, in other words, an extremely annoying, anxiety-inducing week-long teachable moment. For the sake of morale, I will call that a silver lining.

The primary reading for this unit was Claude Fischer’s America Calling: A Social History of the Telephone to 1940. I’ve posted a summary of the book’s main argument –along with some relevant clips and images — here. First, a sneak peek!

One of the things people tend to assume about established technologies is that they’re not making any assumptions. Knowing how to use a telephone is such an obvious thing, people think, if they ever bother thinking about the telephone at all, because why would they, it’s such a natural part of human life, right? WRONG, says Claude Fischer, who reminds us in America Calling: A Social History of the Telephone to 1940 that the telephone was something people had to learn, which itself was something the people selling the telephone had to teach, and later something advertisers and marketers had react to when people began adopting the new technologies in unexpected ways.

Happy helloing, everyone!

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