1.22: Transformation of your Telephone

The telephone has been with us so long that it has almost become a natural part of our environment. We take it for granted. We notice it only when it is gone. Modern etiquette takes it for granted. Ann Landers refers to people who visit without calling as boors.7

It has changed, of course, over the years but only in superficial ways. Since Alexander Graham Bell patented it in 1896, of course, it has multiplied itself many times.8 Once available, like the model-T Ford, in all colors so long as it was black - it was soon available in a rainbow of colors. Once available in one standard shape, it is now available in a wide variety of styles (to fit the various life styles) ranging from 1920s to Mickey Mouse. A few decades ago, touch dialing was introduced. The fact that a trivial shift from turning a rotary dial to pressing buttons was then heralded as a great technological breakthrough suggests how little the telephone has changed. Until recently, there has only been such surface changes - the telephone has not changed in essence for many years.

Lately, however, something has started to happen to your familiar phone. First, came the answering devices, which we became aware of as more and more often we found ourselves talking not to our friends but to our friend's machine which informed us to leave a message at the sound of the tone. Now, you can have a telephone-calling device. The telephone will redial a number automatically every few minutes and inform you when it gets through.8

There is a plethora of other new services available. Your telephone can automatically record the time and cost of your long-distance calls, can call forward to another number, can remember your favourite numbers so that you can dial them with a two-digit code, can identify your caller before you lift the receiver, can interrupt a current call to receive incoming calls, can store your voice and mail it, and can alert the hospital that you are in trouble when you press one button.

When we think of the telephone, we tend to think of the handset since this is the visible part of the system with which we are familiar. Handsets are gradually being augmented by terminals as nodes in the telephone system. Such terminals enable us to use the telephone system to "talk" to computers as well as to people. Computers are lousy conversationalists but are very well informed.

Handsets are being replaced by terminals because computers can not talk and listen - they can only write and read (so far). Thus, when you call a computer, you have to write your message, and read its reply - hence the terminal which enables you to do so. In more technical terms, the terminal contains an analog-to-digital converter which converts your analog talk to the computer's digital talk when you write to it and back again from its digital talk to your analog talk when it writes back to you. The former device is a modulator, the latter device is a demodulator, and the device which contains both is hence called a modem (that is, a modulator-demodulator).

The handset and the terminal are your entrée into what has been called "the most complex machine yet constructed by man".9 In 1980, it was estimated that there were 400 million telephone handsets in the world. There are many more now. We tend to casually pick up the telephone and dial any of the over 400 million numbers in the world and expect to be able to talk to someone at the other end. Indeed, we get upset if it is not possible right away. However, it requires an amazingly complex system to enable you to perform this simple act.

If each of those 400 million telephones were linked one-to-one, the planet would be covered in wire. There would be [400,000,000 x 399,999,999]/2 wires to be exact. Hence the need for exchanges in which groups of handsets can be linked to groups of handsets. Such links were first made manually (or, more usually, wo manually ). It has been estimated that, if exchanges were still manual, half of the world's population would be telephone operators and the other half would be telephone repairmen.10

The global telephone system which embraces our planet is necessarily becoming more and more automated. It is also switching from an analog system to a digital system - that is, from human language to computer language. This may sound ominous. However, it is just a matter of reducing things to the lowest common denominator to allow people and machines to use the same system by designing it to handle the simplest language.

7   The telephone has become so demanding that we often respond to it more diligently than to a person.

The author as a student was once waiting in a long line for course changes. He noticed that the clerk at the desk would stop talking to the person at the head of the line to answer the telephone. He jumped the line by phoning for the information he needed.

A journalist sent by his editor to get some information about a situation in which a man, barricaded in his home, was engaged in a shootout with the police. Since the police were too absorbed to give him any information, he called the gunman. Although, as he said, he was "very busy" the gunman answered the telephone and answered the questions posed by the journalist.

8   No one has commented on what happens when a telephone-calling machine encounters a telephone-answering machine but one has interesting images of complex wire-tangling "conversations" between the two machines.

9   Sir Edward Fennessy, former Deputy Chairman of the British Post Office, Quoted in Peter Marsh, The Silicon Chip Book. London: Abacus, 1981, Page 157.

10   Peter Marsh, The Silicon Chip Book. London: Abacus, 1981, Page 157.