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By the numbers

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The most underappreciated aspect of cellphones is that they provide today’s communications students with real-time demonstrations of how far telephone technology has evolved.

Take long-distance calls, for instance. A generation or two of cellphone users don’t realize that you used to have to make such calls through an operator—a faceless woman (always a woman) sitting in long rows with other operators in a large, dimly lighted, mysterious room between you and, say, someone you wanted to call in Los Angeles. You would dial zero, the operator would answer, you would tell her tell you wanted to call 678-9866 in Laurel Canyon, and the operator (think The Matrix) juggled connections on a switchboard so you could talk to your friend in L.A. The calls were frightfully expensive, and the definition of “long distance” worked exclusively in the phone company’s favor. My mother used to call her mother in a town 18 miles away. That was a long-distance call. But today, you can call anyone anywhere on your own, and the concept of long distance is long gone.

Even local calls were mediated by operators. You’d pick up the phone, and there was no dial tone. Instead, an operator would say, “Numberplease.” Not “number, please?” but “numberplease.” And if your parents thought you were old enough to make the call, and if you were calling, say, your aunt on the other side of town, you’d tell the operator “2-2-9-2,” because that was your aunt’s number. The operator would say “than-KYU,” and then your aunt’s phone would ring and she would answer, and your mother would take the phone away from you because you’d had your thrill.

In the corner of New York state where I grew up, the telephone company ran out of four-digit telephone numbers, so three digits were added before the original four. When I was a boy, my home phone number was 4244. Then the telephone company added three digits to the front, but they must have figured us all for a bunch of rubes, because of adding, say, the numbers 4, 6 and 8, they added them in a combination of two letters and one numeral. So instead of calling the new number 468-4244, the phone company referred to the number as GM8-4244. They must have thought we rubes could find the letters on the keys quicker than we could find the numbers. That’s how phone numbers were, say, advertised on the radio: “For prompt service, call GM8-8549.” (I should mention that all of these telephone numbers have been altered to protect the innocent—with the exception of the Laurel Canyon number, which I lifted from a Frank Zappa LP.)

Although these quaint aspects of telephoning vanished long ago, the primitive call qualities of the era of operators have survived into the cellphone age, giving younger callers an idea of what it used to be like to talk on the telephone back in the days when Nikita Khrushchev was taking his shoe off and banging it on his delegate desk at the United Nations. For instance, when I’m talking long distance to someone, it often sounds like the voice at the other end is being projected through a hollow Transatlantic cable. This adds a fuzzy, ringing echo effect. Trying to understand the caller is akin to your second semester taking a foreign language: The instructor is talking in, say, French, and you catch a word you know every four or five seconds, but you can’t tell if the speaker is saying “Can you direct me to a good bakery?” or “My Vespa has a flat tire.”

Other times, it sounds as if the speaker is talking sotto voce through a handkerchief in the living room and I am listening from outside the front door. Or it sounds like the entire conversation is taking place in a cistern. Or, most frustratingly, parts of it just vanish. I called my wife before I left work today. She answered hello, and I asked if she wanted me to pick up anything on the way home.

Her answer was a good five seconds of silence, followed by a sound that sounded like “ey,” and more silence. She sounded upset, too. I called her on a land line, and the connection was clear. She wasn’t upset. And she told me not to bother stopping anywhere on the way home, because she had to run a few errands anyway.

“Land line.” The only time I used to hear that phrase was when I was a reporter monitoring the police scanner 30 years ago, and a cop had something to say he didn’t want scanner listeners to hear, so he’d say to the dispatcher, “Call me on a land line,” and so I’d call the dispatcher and asking, “What’s going on?” and he (it always was a he) would say, “All quiet,” which was the standard reply, even if, say, someone had detonated a 500-pound bomb in the Sheriff Department’s parking lot 30 seconds ago.

Perhaps the most vexing aspect of a cellphone conversation, though, is the lag where what you are saying and what the caller is saying pass each other. You say something. The other person starts to reply, but then she finds out you were saying something longer than she thought. So she stops. But you don’t know why she stopped because you are finished talking, so you say something like “go ahead.” But she has already gone ahead because your voice has gone silent. Pretty soon the sentences are stacking up like planes trying to land at O’Hare in a blizzard. The only way to avoid the gaps would be to call someone on a cellphone and say something like, “Ron, great to hear from you again. Over.” And Ron would say, “Yeah, it’s been a long time. Do you copy?”

Next thing you know, there’s a glut of potential police dispatchers.

As you have seen, I have limited this topic to telephone calls. If I were to expand it to, say, using cellphones to take pictures, I would have to write about technology like single-lens reflex cameras, and that would lead to paragraphs about apertures, shutter speeds and depths of field—at which point readers would have abandoned this post to text someone.


( 11 comments — Leave a comment )
Jul. 19th, 2012 01:32 am (UTC)
Maybe the "Can you hear me now?" technicians haven't erected enough towers in the Southern Tier yet - we never have that kind of cell phone voice lag up here in the big city.

But those old phone numbers: ours was FR2-8751. Wow, I can't believe I remember that.

By the way, où est la bibliothèque? (that's what I remember most clearly from high school French class)
Jul. 19th, 2012 02:39 am (UTC)
The library was "straight ahead," as I recall, and the two girls decide to walk there together. Along the way, they meet Paul Martin, who is a friend of one of the girls; she introduces Paul: "Je voudrais presenter Paul Martin."

I was OK with French early on, but once that Vespa got a flat tire, I was headed for the border.
Jul. 19th, 2012 04:03 am (UTC)
You learned how to get to the library? Man, all I learned in high school French class was "Il fait chaud" courtesy of Madame Popoli's frequent hot flashes. That, and the art of French nasal sounds.
Jul. 19th, 2012 11:55 am (UTC)
I almost had coffee coming out my nose with the Madame Popoli line.
Jul. 19th, 2012 11:23 am (UTC)
FR2-2865, it was a party line shared by multiple users. If you picked up your phone and two people were talking you were supposed to hang up and wait unless it was an emergency. As kids we always had to be told to hang up. We had two phones, one downstairs and one in my parents room. My son who is always connected now asked one time what kind of cell phone we had as kids. I told him it was a dime in our pocket to use a pay phone. Most of us would go into a store and ask the owner to use his phone to call home and spend the dime on candy.
French class, the dreaded DOMINIQUE BY THE SINGING NUN and Alexander Dumas pronounced DUMBASS by every kid in my class.
Jul. 19th, 2012 11:54 am (UTC)
The Singing Nun—just another one-hit wonder.
Jul. 19th, 2012 02:02 pm (UTC)
Call from the pay phone, let the home phone ring twice, hang up so you save the dime. That means come pick me up. Remember that one?
Jul. 19th, 2012 03:29 pm (UTC)
Sure do. I think money was tighter than we realized.
Jul. 19th, 2012 04:29 pm (UTC)
My mom told me that was the technique the Taiwanese expats used in America to "phone home" (loooooooooooong distance!) or between US coasts. XD Another trick was, they would tell the operator to ask for a "Mr. Tong" or some pseudonym like that, and of course at home there'd be no "Mr. Tong" so that's what the family on the other end would tell the operator (and thus not have to pay the charge for the call) but that was code for "I'm alive and doing okay".
Jul. 19th, 2012 11:42 pm (UTC)
After reading your comment, I realized that I had no idea at all what "long distance" phone calls really meant.
Jul. 20th, 2012 08:13 pm (UTC)
I had no idea that 18 miles used to be considered "long distance" (omg), so we're even on that score ;)
( 11 comments — Leave a comment )

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