6.4 Telephone vs Television

Telephone had a half-century headstart on television. Bell took out his patent in 1876 whereas Baird, Farnsworth, and Zworykin were working on television in the 1920s. However, a number of factors delayed the penetration of the telephone into society.

There was much resistance from the telegraph industry which was well-established when Bell took out his patent. They had a vested interest in delaying an invention which threatened their turf. Some advocates of telegraphy (writing at a distance) may have genuinely believed that the public would not be interested in telephone (speaking at a distance) because there would be no record of the transaction. Even the inventor was apprehensive about a technology which could be viewed as invasive. 64 He believed that it would be accepted by business but only if it was limited to an hour or two a day; he believed that it would not be accepted at all in homes and thus installed his first telephones in corner stores so that people could leave their homes to use them in emergencies [POOLE].

The two systems - telephone and television - developed side by side during the 1940s, 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s. There were no very significant changes. The telephone receiver, originally a standard black device, blossomed into a variety of forms and colors. The television set, originally small and in black and white, evolved into larger screens in color. The fact that minor shifts from rotary to push-button dialing in telephone and from black-and-white to color images in television were hailed as major innovations demonstrates how stable the situation was. Both technologies penetrated into the home until, in industrialized countries, their penetration had reached an asymptote of over 90%.

Whatever thought was devoted to the differences between those two systems focused on the part we could see - the telephone handset and the television set. They were largely seen as pieces of furniture which communicate. Playwrights sometimes wrote them into their scripts. Thus, they were clearly seen as "special" pieces of furniture but little consideration was given to the differences between them.

If we can tear ourselves away from the superficial visible aspects of the systems, we could consider the deeper distinction between an auditory system (telephone) and a largely visual system (television). They capitalize, respectively, on the two distance senses of our species. We have already considered the dramatic differences between an oral culture (based on the ear) and a print culture (based on the eye).

Sound and light are both waves. However, a deeper distinction is between waves transmitted over wires (telephone) and waves transmitted through air (television). This distinction broke down, however, with the development of satellite-based telephone, which enabled us to receive telephone signals through the air as well as over wires; and with the development of cable television, which enabled us to receive television signals over wires as well as through the air. Communication over wires and communication through air both have their unique problems.

The basic limitation of communication using waves through the air is that waves travel in straight lines whereas our globe is round. The range of radio stations is about 40 miles. This is roughly the distance from any point on our planet to the horizon, and is the limiting factor in any line-of-sight system of communication. Thus, the waves must be passed on like a baton in a relay race with relay stations every forty miles. Or some means must be devised for bouncing waves off some "relay station" outside our globe. It turns out that the ionosphere conveniently bounces long-range air waves back to earth at a point considerably further than 40 miles away. The launching of the first satellite by Russia in 1957 suggested another option. Since then, air waves have been bounced back to earth by satellites.

Another option is to send the waves along wires and bend the wires around the globe. The story of the laying of the first trans-Altantic cable was told above. Since then, our planet has acquired a girdle of criss-crossing cables. The basic limitation of communication using waves along wires is that copper wire has a limited bandwidth. Replacement of copper with fiber optic wires does for the wire option what satellites did for the air option. As the air-wire war continues, we will most likely see some compromise emerge with information being transmitted by a combination of the two strategies.

Another distinction is between synchronous and asynchronous communication. Both telephone and television were originally synchronous. That is, you and I had to be at the respective ends of our phone line at the same time for us to talk. Bill Gates points out that, if you wanted to see the Beatles or Elvis Presley on the Ed Sullivan Show, you had to be in front of your television set at eight o'clock on the designated Sunday evening [GATES]. Both telephone and television have since become asynchronous. You can leave your message in my voice-mail box and I can pick it up later. Time-shifting is possible with both television and telephone. My dates with Felicity and Ally McBeal need not necessarily be at 7 p. m. on Sunday and 9 p. m. on Monday respectively (to my embarrassment, I've become addicted to two prime time soap operas!) - I can record and meet them both on Tuesday. You can leave me a v-mail message about the logistics of meeting on Sunday, I can pick it up on Monday, and meet you face-to-face as planned on Tuesday.

A deeper distinction is that the telephone is a two-way communication system where the television is a one-way communication system. Lately, television has touted itself as interactive. The viewer with a set-top box mediating between his cable company and his television set can choose one of four camera angles as he watches a hockey game or choose four alternative endings as she watches a drama. However, this very limited interactivity is little more liberating than the "interactivity" involved in choosing between brands of breakfast cereals. They are essentially the same and are often produced by the same corporations.

Going even deeper, we encounter the distinction between the telephone infrastructure consisting of a network of interlinked nodes and the television infrastructure consisting of a few sources connected to many destinations. In the telephone system, everyone is a source as well as a destination. Once again, as in the case of the second generation of media, we find democratic and autocratic versions of media. The underlying infrastructure of telephone is like that of the Post Office, whereas the underlying infrastructure of television is like that of the newspaper.

Paradoxically, this democratic infrastructure is created by building a hierarchy. If Rob creates a "telephone system" with a string and two tin cans so as to communicate with his neighbor Mary, he needs only 1 string. However, if Sam asks to join the network and insists on his own tin terminal, they now need 3 strings - one between Rob and Mary, one between Rob and Sam, and one between Mary and Sam. An invitation to a fourth kid, Milly, would require 6 strings - one between Rob and Mary, one between Rob and Sam, one between Rob and Milly, one between Mary and Sam, one between Mary and Milly, and one between Sam and Milly.

This is beginning to get out of hand - so let us reduce it to a formula. Since each kid must be linked to each other - the number of links in the number of kids times the number of others (that is the number of kids minus one). However, since the link from Rob to Mary is the same as the link from Mary to Rob, the result must be divided by two. Figure 6-3 shows the relationship between the number of kids and the number of links between them. As you can see, the number of links increases quickly as the number of kids increases slowly.

This hierarchical organization of the telephone system enables you to zero in very quickly on one of the 400 million handsets. Let us say you want to call from Canada to your mother in Scotland. You dial 011 which gets you Great Britain, then 44 which gets you Scotland, then 505 which gets you Renfrewshire, then 843 which gets you Lochwinnoch, and then 364 which gets you the handset in your mother's home. Hello, Mum! (Actually, it is not that tidy but the example does serve to demonstrate the principle of zeroing in on a specific item from a large number by moving into smaller and smaller categories to which it belongs).

Note that the same principle is applied in getting a letter to one of the millions of homes in the world. You write the categories in reverse order - Mrs. J. K. Brown, 9 Calder Drive, Lochwinnoch, Renfrewshire, Scotland, Great Britain - and the mail system works backwards through this set of categories to deliver it. Hello, Mum! The Zip Code is an attempt to allow machines to automate mail delivery just as they have automated telephone call delivery. You may be familiar with the same divide-and-conquer principle in the game of Twenty Questions.

In the early 1980s, there was a flurry of excitement around a technology called videotext, which was a sort of hybrid of telephone and television. Various nations were touting their version of videotext as a standard for the globe. Japan has its Captain, Great Britain its Prestel, France its Minitel, and Canada its Telidon. The Canadian videotext system, Telidon, was technically superior to the French videotext system, Minitel. However, Telidon failed and Minitel flourished.65 This could have been due simply to the poorer marketing of Telidon (just as VHS videocassettes triumphed over the better technology of BETA videocassettes because of the poorer marketing of BETA by Sony).

There may have been a deeper reason. Telidon was viewed and developed as an extension of television, whereas Minitel was viewed and developed as an extension of telephone. Touting "two way television" was not a good move, especially just before 1984!66 Perhaps the most important distinction is between the democratic infrastructure of the telephone system as opposed to the autocratic infrastructure of the television system. Those distinctions are summarized in Figure 6-4.

We saw above how television did not wipe out its precursor, radio. Applying the evolutionary framework of this book, we may perhaps understand the difference in terms of the ecological niche of each media. Radio has certainly been reduced in importance by the assimilation of television. The family now gathers around the television set rather than around the radio. This era can be recaptured by those who did not live through it by renting Woody Allen's Radio Days from the local video store (which, incidentally is forcing television in turn to redefine its niche). Radio has carved itself out a new and narrower niche for situations in which it is more appropriate to use the ears rather than the eyes - while driving, while doing dishes, while dusting furniture, while dancing or romancing, etc. It was a godsend during the recent Ice Storm since it served to keep people informed and in touch with one another when more sophisticated communication systems were disabled.

Nor did the telephone wipe out its precursor - the telegram. Whether their resistance was due to a genuine belief or simply due to their investments, the apprehension of the telegraph industry was indeed justified. When was the last time you sent or received a telegram? Even the language of the telegram - the Morse Code - has recently been declared obsolete [IMMEN]. Telephone triumphed over telegraph because it was the fittest in the same niche. (Fitness has, in this context, nothing to do with the gymnasium - it means the best fit to the environment.) Telegraph persisted alongside telephone for some time because it provided a concrete record of transactions. However, fax moved into this niche and dealt the death-blow to telegraph. Sometimes it takes a one-two punch before a technology goes down.

64   He was not entirely wrong. It is a very invasive technology. As one who did not grow up with the telephone, I'm horrified at how people are so compelled to answer it. I once took advantage of this when, standing in line for some information about university registration, I noticed that the clerk serving my line would interrupt her conversation to answer the phone. I jumped the queue by phoning her. A reporter, sent to cover a story in which a man holed up in his apartment was having a shoot-out with police, phoned the man. The gunman answered the phone, and answered his questions, with apologies for his abrupt answers since he was "very busy". The horror story continues as I watch people carrying a cellular phone like an electronic leash. A couple having brunch interrupted their tete-a-tete repeatedly to use their respective phones for outgoing as well as incoming calls.

65   Incidentally, the victory turned out to be a mixed blessing. The penetration of the internet into France has been slowed down by the fact that many people are satisfied with the limited version of the internet embodied by the Minitel system.

66   It is not surprising that the various dystopias - 1984, Brave New World - are based on television rather than telephone. Big Brother could hardly control the population by calling each of us. We are unlikely to be lulled into a passive state by talking to one another on the telephone.