The Sociology of the Telephone

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The Sociology of the Telephone* U.S.A. SIDNEY H. ARONSON John Jay College of Criminal Justice of the University of New York, New York, THE WELTER of recent writing on the phenomena of &dquo;modernization&dquo; and social change scant attention has been granted to technological innovations themselves as direct sources of new human needs and behavior patterns. Yet it seems apparent that the kind of modernization experienced by the Western world, and more specifically the United States, over
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  The Sociology of the Telephone* SIDNEY H.  ARONSON John Jay College of Criminal Justice of the University of New York, New York, U.S.A.  AMID THE WELTER of recent writing on the phenomena of &dquo;modern- ization&dquo; and social change scant attention has been granted to technological innovations themselves as direct sources of new human needs and behavior patterns. Yet it seems apparent that the kind of modernization experienced by the Western world, and more specifically the United States, over the past century is intimately tied, both as cause and effect, to the availability of the telephone as an easy, efhcient and relatively inexpensive means of communi- cation. This may seem only to restate the obvious, yet how rarely is the tele- phone so much as mentioned in contemporary discussions of social change or modernization?’ This is the more remarkable as theprocess of communi- cation, generically considered, has come to be recognized as the &dquo;fundamental social process&dquo; without which society and the individual self could not exist. Communication-in-general (if such a thing can be imagined) has been much studied but the meaning and the consequence for individuals of being able to pick up something called a telephone and rapidly transmit or receive messages have been all but ignored.  As with so many other aspects of social life that which we take most for granted usually needs to be most closely examined. This inattention to the social consequences of the telephone is the more surprising still in light of the importance usually attached to the presence or absence of mass media of written communication in explaining differences among societies. It has become usual to distinguish between pre-industrial and industrial societies, each type manifesting distinctive characteristics partly attributable to the widespread dissemination and accessibility (by way of general literacy) of the printed word. It is surely conceivable that the presence or absence of a system of two-way oral-aural communication may account for equally important differences between types of societies, thatthe distinction between a society with and one without a developed telephone system may be as great as that between one with and one without a developed system of printed media or even as great as that between a literate and a non-literate society.  A necessarily brief examinationof the history of the telephone inthe United States will support these assertions. * I am grateful to Professor Richard Greenbaum of John Jay College for his considerable contribution to this article. 1 The number of telephones present in a country is frequently used as an indicator of modernization by sociologists but the process by which telephone communications contributed to the changes implied by that term are not considered.  154 Whether a matter of social structure or of &dquo;national character&dquo;  American society not only fosters technological innovationbut typically embraces it with alacrity once it occurs. The introduction and almost immediate acceptance ofthe telephone in the United States after 1876 is characteristic. That  Americans at that particular moment in history wanted to or &dquo;needed&dquo; to communicate in new and faster ways facilitated the transformation of their behavior and the structure and character of their society.’ The remainder of this paper will present a brief surveyof some of the areas of  American life where the &dquo;modern- izing&dquo; impact of the telephone has been most pervasive and obvious. If the discussion that follows may seem, by implication at least, to give to the tele- phone an unwarranted primacy as an agent of modernization such an over- statement of the case can be justified as an understandable reaction to ninety- odd years of scholarly neglect, not to say disdain. The telephone, like modern- ization itself, has insinuated itself into even the most remote crevices of  Ameri- can life; the ubiquity of its ringing as an accompaniment to our daily lives can perhaps best be compared to the ever present tolling of church bells in a Medieval village or bourg. The railroad, the electric light, the automobile, even the bathroom-not to speak of the more dramatic radio and television- have all been granted their moment on the scholarly stage, to be examined more or less intensively, more or less dispassionately. The time seems overripe for a comprehensive examination of the slighted telephone. Nor is the story by any means all told. The recent development of a &dquo;picturephone&dquo; which adds the visual capability of television to the traditional telephone promises to make a new chapter in the history of Bell’s creation as well as a new dimen- sion to human communication. The Telephone and the Economy What can be said regarding the most pervasive effects of the telephone on the organization and conduct of  American economic life, aside from the obvious rise of the  American Telephone and Telegraph Company itself as an economic monolith? Perhaps the most conspicuous of these effects has been the dramatic contraction in the time needed to establish communication, transmit orders and consummate business transactions, what for the sake of brevity, may be called &dquo;transaction time.&dquo; By bringing two or more persons, often separated by long distances, into direct and immediatecommunication the telephone eliminated much of the time which otherwise would have been spent in writing letters or traveling to meetings. Telephoning did not, of course, replace written communicationand face-to-face meetings; it rather supple- mented them and altered some what their character. The telephone greatly 1 This statement should not be taken as advancing a monocausal theory of social change predicated on the ideaof direct technological determinism. Far from it. Mutual indepen- dence has always characterized technological and social change.  155 speeded the pace and the responsiveness of business at the same time that it tended to change the relations among businessmen from those between whole personalities to those between differentiated, functionally specific &dquo;roles&dquo;, a fact which may help to explain the almost compulsive informality and con- viviality that obtains when businessmen finally do come together face-to-face This suggests that the increased efficiency of doing business may have been paid for, in part, by a decrease in the personal and emotional satisfactions of business activity. We are, for example, all aware that the insistent ringing of the telephone usually takes priority even over an ongoing face-to-tace business conversation. The significance of this ordering of priorities needs to be ex- amined as does the actual extent to which various kinds of businesses are dependent fortheir conduct on telephonic conversation.’ In addition the telephone made possible the efficient organization and operation of large-scale, integrated, mass production manufacturing enter- prisis. In the production of automobiles, for example, a single plant may comprise a hundred or more buildings sprawled over several hundred acres and employing thousands of workers. It is hard to see how the communi- cations necessary for the effective coordination of such aggregates of men andmachines couldbe arranged economically and efficiently without the use of the telephone. No previous mode of communication was able to combine the latter’s speed with its simplicity and economy of operation. Had major in- dustrial expansion come to an  America lacking the telephone it would surely have resulted in physical arrangements very different from those we know today. It may be more than coincidence that Henry Ford’s introduction of assembly line production in 1913 came at a time when telephone technology had already attained a sophisticated level.2 2 If each telephone were considered as a replacement for a human message carrier and further consider that the average number of telephone calls completed in the United States during 1968 was 426,200,000 per day, at least a vague idea can be gained of the effects of telescoping &dquo;transaction time&dquo; and of the extent to which the telephone system is the life-blood of the  American economy.3 Of course, not all these telephone calls were business calls and not all those that were were necessary, in a rational sense, to the conduct of business. The existence of a convenient, easy and inexpensive means of communication 1 On the extent to which  American businessmen hastened to take advantage of the telephone see,  American Telephone and Telegraph Company, National Telephone Directory (New York, October, 1894), (New York, October, 1897); Department of Commerce and Labor, United States Bureau of the Census, Special Reports Telephones: 1907 (Washington, 1910), 74-75; Herbert N. Casson, The History of the Telephone (Chicago, 1910), 204-211. 2  Arthur Pound, The Telephone Idea (New York, 1926), 42-43. 3 These calls were distributed as follows: 330,200,000 were handled by the Bell System-  American Telephone and Telegraph and its subsidiaries-and 96,000,000 by the In- dependent telephone companies. The figure does not include calls made between two extensions connecting through the same switchboard, but only calls between independent numbers. The total number of such calls in the United States in 1968 is in the trillions. Statistical  Abstracts of the United States (Washington, 1969), 495.  156 doubtless increases the perceived &dquo;need&dquo; of people to communicate with others as well as their opportunity so to do. This latter consideration raises therather different question of the psychological as well as social functions served by the telephone, a question to be raised below. The extent to which the telephone facilitated the consolidation of American corporate enterprise in the post-Civil War period should not be overlooked. The years from 1875 to 1914, during which telephone use spread rapidly, witnessed the growth of giant corporations and the formation of trusts, despite thepassage of the Sherman  Antitrust  Act in 1890. The telephone possessed obvious superiorities over the telegraph in the planning and coordinating of business activity, especially where delicate and, at time dubiously legal manipulations were involved. It was far easier to use, required no inter- mediaries to encodeand decode its message (thus necessarily making them privy to its contents and impairing the secrecy of the communication) and, perhaps most important, it left no written or printed record which might later prove embarrassing or incriminating.’ Secrecy could be assured by face-to-face meetings but rail travel was far slower and more uncomfortable than a phone conversation and eventually phone lines connected many more points than rail lines.2 It is suggestive that E H. Harriman, one of the master trust-builders of the period, had one hundred telephones in his mansion at  Arden, New York, sixty of which were directly linked to long distance lines.  An obviously naive magazine writer referred to Harriman’s attachment to the talking machine by writing: &dquo;He is a slave to the telephone.&dquo; Harriman replied, &dquo;Nonsense, it is a slave to me.&dquo;3  Another major impact of the telephone on the business life of the nation may be seen in its effect on the development and expansion of the stock, bond, and commodity markets. The widespread use of the telephone probably added to the short-run instability of such markets, but at the same time, it permitted, for the first time, their development on a truly national scale and the wide- spread dissemination of stock ownership. The continuous spreading and the ever increasing efficiency (at least until the decade of the 1960’s) of telephone communication (supplemented by the private wire system of brokerage houses) means that financial information is continuously available and that 1 These advantages were stressed in advertisements appearing in the telephone directory: ’Despatch and Privacy’ are among the important features of Long Distance Telephone Service.  All subjects may be described without reserve. National Telephone Directory (1897), 733. Virtually every advertisement in that directory was directed toward educating busi- nessmen of the benefits to be derived from using the telephone and especially the long distance lines. 2 To Omaha and return in five minutes by LONG DISTANCE TELEPHONE. ; The Mail is quick, the Telegraph is quicker but the LONG DISTANCE TELEPHONE is instantaneous and you don’t have to wait for an answer. ; The Long Distance Telephone Furnishes the only satisfactory Substitute for a personal Interview. Ibid., 565, 715, 723. This certainly implies that the use of the telephone during this period was substituted for much business-related rail travel. See also, Special Reports : Telephones : 1907, 75. 3 Casson, History of the Telephone, 205-206.
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