The Landscape of the Landline - A Compressed History of the Telephone

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The Talking Drum

The talking drum had its origins in Africa. It was a very efficient and versatile device that had a tremendous vocabulary. The vocabulary range was due to the fact that the pitch of the drum could be widely modified. The drum could thus be used to communicate across long distances, with other drums picking up signals and repeating them to other tribes. In the West, radio signals acted as talking drums, carrying various tones from one place to another. Ham Radio operators and hobbyists acted as talking drums when they connected to one another.


When the telephone first arrived on the technosocial scene, it was regarded as frightening device to some. The idea of shutting oneself in a room and talking into a machine instead of to another person seemed ridiculous. Worse; it made one look insane. But like any other technology, the cultural behavior surrounding the telephone began to normalize. After a while, a phone call was regarded as a normal part of everyday life. It became a cultural standard instead of an oddity.

However, the phone was still tied to one time and place. A phone could be accessed only in certain places. The phone booth, office, or home phone could not be taken out of the room without unplugging it and removing the cord. The phone was leashed by the cord, and auditory human communication was similarly leashed.

The Wireless Telephone WWII veteran and radio operator George Swiegert had aching muscles, which made it difficult to answer the phone. To solve this problem, he made an innovation that allowed the phone to be cordless in 1966. He’s considered the first person to have the patent on the invention. The cordless phone extended the communication leash from one room to the entire house and even yard. This caused a few problems; first, the phone could get lost more easily. It tended to float around to different rooms, get covered by debris, or run out of charge. But it brought freedom too. One could walk around the house while on a call, a harbinger of an era of wireless soon to come.

The Transport of People and Things

The telephone made the world very small, you could stand on one side of it, whisper something, and be heard on the other. It was that small. (Ruby Mae Has Something to Say, Written and illustrated by David Small. Unpaged. New York: Crown Publishers. $12).

From 1500-1840, the best average speed of horse drawn coaches and sailing ships was 10mph. From 1850-1930, steam locomotives increased that speed to 65mph, and steam ships averaged 36 mph. The advent of the propeller aircraft allowed people and things to travel 300-400mph. The 1960’s increased this to 500-700mph. But social technologies emerged alongside physical transportation. The first form of teleportation was textual, through the letter and first written language. The second was auditory – the phone, radio, and mobile device. The next may be haptic, as the distance we are away from each other and the rapid nomadicity at which we live allows us to contact each other by voice and text, but not touch –one of the most important connectors.

As the amount of time and space between nodes of connection decreased, the intersection of rapid news methods such as blogging, mobile technology, and chat rooms begin to merge. This convergence allowed dramatic increases in the ability to rapidly convey information to others. Instead of engaging with one person at a time, many are now capable of talking at once. No where is this more prevalent than on Twitter. It has found ways to connect communities, stave off suburban isolation, and warn of earthquakes before medical help can access them.

The distance between individual and community will continue to decrease, and those products and services which decrease the amount of time and space it takes to create an action will be the most successful. Actions and devices will become lighter and lighter, and the social will continue to become more and more mobile. The convergence of various technologies will result in rapid learning and communication never imagined before.


It is mobility that makes the cell phone capable of restructuring social interaction and impression management. The private space that the cell phone is able to carry with it began with the cell phone's predecessor – the landline telephone.

To understand why the cell phone is capable of this, it is important to look at the beginnings of the cell phone, and the genesis of cell phone use. The difference between the cell phone and the landline telephone is that the landline telephone is tethered by its cord to a single place. The telephone is limited by the length of its cord and its proximity to a phone jack.

To those who had never experienced a telephone, the device was as foreign as the Internet once was in 1993. The fact that a human could speak into a machine and hear another’s voice on the other side gives the appearance of personal schizophrenia.

Over time, the strangeness of the new dissolved into formal society and the landline telephone became very important for the modern society it came to support. Those living in suburban communities were less capable of reaching actual members of society on a daily basis. The telephone helped them to socialize in the isolated spaces of modern society.

The structure of the cell phone as opposed to the landline telephone is what allows the private to carry into the public. Ten years ago, the ring-tone and the cell phone conversation were hardly a part of modern society's everyday social geography. Now, mobile telephony has made its “presence felt in almost every region of the world” (Plant 2000:26).

As technology progressed, cordless telephones arrived on the communication landscape. They had a slightly larger reach, but the range of movement allotted to the user seldom made it outside the house. The phone had to be placed back in its charging receptacle or it would run out of power and would not ring. Those who needed a phone while 'on-the-go' or in the city had to find a phone booth.

Besides costing money, they were public phones, not private ones. The telephone user had to pay for ‘borrowed’ time. Because of this, public phones were not conducive to long conversations. Unlike the cell phone, the phone booth and the personal household/business telephone did offer some sort of privacy.

They were constrained to location, and users could only carry them so far as the cord reached. Wireless telephones offered mobility, but were large and unwieldy, and users could not travel with them in their pockets.

Although the first cell phones were heavy and awkward, they allowed the first adopters the ability to talk freely while walking or doing mobile tasks. When un-tethered from location, the mobile telephone was free to enter into the public social geography. Cell phone users were capable of having mobile conversations; conversations that could occur at any time in any place that carried a cell phone signal.

Today, computation devices are no longer held to the ground by cords but have become wireless and mobile. Telephones are no longer confined to roadside booths or the office of the domestic home. The cell phone is the wireless device that ties computing and telephony together.

Technosocial interaction continues to colonize and structure the communications of an increasingly large number of people. The coffee shop I am currently sitting at is filled with the sounds of cell phone ringtones and conversations, and when I observe the tables of the coffee shop patrons, I cannot find one that doesn't have at least one cell phone present. It has become impossible to have a modern lifestyle that is not interrupted by the ring-tone.

Though this person is really a disembodied voice that the individual responds to, the response of the caller to the call-ee is not compressed, and the decompressed dialogue takes up more space than a simple face-to-face interaction. A face-to-face interaction takes up two seats in a social setting, instead of one. The social interaction of a cell phone user takes up one and a half seats.

Compression of Multiple Social Groups into a Small Space

If the light modern state of the cell phone helps users to transcend the heaviness of a fully rendered physical body, then the state that Twitter provides is even lighter.

Further Reading