The Social Impact of the Telephone edited by Ithiel de Sola Pool
Cambridge, Ma. : MIT Press, 1977. Hardcover. 502 pages ; illustrated ; 25 cm. In original dust jacket with minimal wear. Pages are unmarked and binding is firm.
"With a telephone in the house, a buggy in the barn, and a rural mailbox at the gate, the problem of how to keep the boys and girls on the farm is solved." So wrote a hopeful commentator in 1905. The prediction turned out .to be not exactly correct, but not because the telephone did not emerge as a powerful force. It did indeed: it has altered the whole course of human communications. More than a mere convenience or a luxury, the telephone has become a ubiquitous and indispensable component of modern industrial society. Yet, despite the hundred years of its existence, the telephone's profound social consequences have been largely ignored by scholars. Its polymorphous character makes it easy for us to take it for granted; literature on telephony has been exceptionally meager.
But what, after all, has the telephone actually done to our lives? And how? Has it fostered population dispersion, the growth of suburbia, or the growth of great metropolitan downtowns? The phone could relieve rural loneliness, thereby making life on the farm better, but equally it may have facilitated relocation in the city. It could make possible suburban operation of urban commerce and also downtown operation of businesses away from customers and factories. How did the telephone develop as a public service rather than as the exclusive preserve of the elite few, anyway?
Coming at the hundredth anniversary of the telephone's creation, these twenty or so essays represent the first collective scholarly attempt to evaluate the impact of Alexander Bell's invention on contemporary life. Under five sections entitled "Alternative Paths of Development: The Early Years," "The Telephone in Life," "The Telephone and the City," "The Telephone and Human Interaction," and "Social Uses of the Telephone," distinguished contributors from the United States and abroad in various disciplines—history, sociology, psychology, political science, urban studies, architecture, economics—assess the telephone's all-embracing effect on the twentieth century.
Asa Briggs, dealing with other possibilities of development for the telephone, presents examples of what he terms the "Pleasure Telephone," a.system on telephone wires similar to what we today know as radio broadcasting. Colin Cherry argues for the democratizing force of the phone, which suited well America's pluralism and populism. J. R. Pierce recounts the telephone's growth and usage, limning the characteristics of the present system and its possible degradation through abuse. Martin Mayer shows how the telephone has altered our use of time, while Brenda Maddox looks at the new professions expressly for women created by the telephone. Jean Gottmann, to whom we owe the concept of "megalopolis," clarifies the processes that are changing the structure of modern cities, and Ronald Abler casts a searchlight on how the phone affects the modern city with respect to occupations, geography, communication distances, and location of activities in urban centers. Bertil Thorngren stresses the telephone's strengthening of human "linkage"—it reinforces networks of relationships already in existence rather than giving rise to specialized subsets of exclusively telephone friendships. The other essays also furnish a wide range of insights into telephony.
Undeniably the telephone's social impact has been liberating in many ways, but it has also shaped our lives in ways we realize and in ways of which we are not aware. The authors of this book may help open our eyes as well as our ears to the message of the telephone after 100 years.
The book is the first in the MIT Bicen-tennial Studies Series.
Ithiel de Sola Pool teaches political science and directs the Research Program on Communications Policy, which sponsored the symposium out of which the essays grew, at MIT. His previous books include Talking Back: Citizen Feedback and Cable Technology, also published by The MIT Press.
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