Project Inquiry and America Calling

America Calling by Claude S. Fischer

America Calling by Claude S. Fischer

One of my project advisor’s Lareese Hall, recommended a book that I’d also spotted in my preliminary research–America Calling:  A Social History of the Telephone to 1940 by Claude S. Fischer. So what the heck does a scholarly, statistical book like that have to do with ringtones? It is important to me to understand the context for the ringtones–specifically the invention and dissemination of the device that they are nested in–a telephone. Here’s what stayed with me from the book:

1. Sometimes the creators of the new technology are dead wrong about the applied uses of the technology. Telephone companies may have marketed certain uses of the telephone to people, but the users end up designing uses appropriate, interesting and/or necessary to them.

2. Etiquette was an issue. Manufacturers and distributors of new technologies do seek to educate and instruct the public, not just through manuals or help pages, but also through advertising on how the public should use their tools. I quote Claude (from a chapter called Educating the Public): “Many industry people complained of profanity, yelling and abuse on the telephone. Through notices, direct chastisement of customers by employees, and occasional legal action, the companies sought to improve telephone  courtesy.” It might be interesting/run for me to think of potential ringtone/cell phone etiquette projects to promote the project.

3. Telephones were often marketed to people as useful when emergencies arose. Interesting–many first time cell phone users (especially women I know) spoke of how they got their first cell phone “in case of emergencies” and for times when they  might be driving alone in their cars, in case of  break-downs and such. But cell phones also allow us to be mobile (rather than stationery) when reinforcing our personal circles of social interaction. Phone companies, at first, weren’t so keen on selling phones for socializing–they were primarily touted as tools for business and emergencies. But the public adopted phones for social purposes, and telephone marketing departments responded with media campaigns highlighting this usage.  “A 1937 AT&T ad reminded readers that ‘the telephone is vital in emergencies, but that is not the whole of its service…Friendship’s path often follows the trail of the telephone wire.’” Ever heard of Friendster?

4. There is a notion that technologies like telephones and automobiles help to distance personal communities from localities, yet statistical analysis hints that telephone development spurs local activity (whereas autos spur extralocal activity). What will video telephony do for us? Extend and reinforce the network further out? I think so. I tend to use phone calls and text messages largely for purposes of local communication, and a video call via Google Chat to connect with people farther away. Is Google Chat with Video like the automobile?! To a certain extent… Facebook and Twitter certainly reinforce local experiences.

5. Quoting Claude again, “…both the telephone and automobile before WWII were, in their domestic use, “technologies of sociability” (and thus perhaps especially “feminine”). “The net result of their use was to expand the volume of social activity and, in that way, add to the pace of social life” (p. 254). Will scholars continue to think of technologies of sociability as “feminine” now that so many males heartily participate in online localized media and participatory social cultures (texting, MMS-ing, emailing, vide0-chatting, and through online participatory cultures)? Does an attempt to involve the community in the creation of original ringtones and ringtone sharing have a chance to become another social activity as part of telephony?

6. As another friend and project advisor, Hyla Willis pointed out, a phone’s ring is an alert signal. From America Calling, (p. 244), “The telephone, some observers assert, sped up the pace of life, forced people to be alert, and thus created a lasting feeling of tension.  …In his 1976 history of AT&T, John Brooks claimed that the early telephone ‘was creating and expecting immediate results, whether in business, love or other forms of social intercourse.'” When I was growing up, telephones had one ring that sounded the same. I remember when some of my friends got Snoopy (or other character phones) and the alert signals were different. Do people feel less interrupted or disturbed now that voicemail is standard and that “rings” can be selected and programmed by individuals? Will we just feel more empowered to let unidentified calls go into voicemail, and more readily availble to be connected to those we want or need to hear from because we can identify their calls with the sweetest, most personal, audio forms of notificaiton?

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Filed under Locally Toned (all posts), Ringtone Research

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