I’m Sam Buchan-Watts, Research Assistant for Crossed Lines and I’ll be chairing this panel, ‘Hello’.
So ‘Hello!’, or ‘Ahoy!’ – which we learn was Bell’s preferred form of introduction.
Thank you Sarah, Will, Elizabeth and Anne for getting us going. And what a rich set of introductions it is.
A question to begin with:
Telephones call across space, but also, as we hear from these compelling accounts, across time. In Will’s rendering, modernism is an ongoing historical period which has seen an epochal shift to bidirectional systems of communication: to networks rather than the hierarchal media setups of the past. In Sarah’s account, telephones are always haunted – an absence which could be temporal or spatial. Elizabeth gives us a vivid picture of the Information Age Gallery, the largest single gallery at the Science Museum, which is underpinned by rich oral histories and where historical periods align with different configurations of telephonic space: exchange, cable, cellular and so on. Anne refers compellingly to the rich BT Archives as housing a ‘corporate memory’.
I’d like to invite each of you to reflect on telephony and states of time. What does it mean to historize a technology as protean or ‘haunted’ as the telephone, whether in the archive, in fiction, or beyond? What medium is best suited to telephony’s strange ‘memory’?
"Necessity is the mother of invention".
Technology that allows communication in such a way will always be in a process of constant adaptation. We've used it during wars, as a means of political deterrence, for sharing news seconds after it happens, for sharing selfies. Any global trends or movements have been incorporated into the technology. World War 2 - resistance radio broadcasts, telegrams, phone calls between world leaders. The Cold War - a military industrial complex that created a wealth of new communication technology. The 2000s - adapting to consumerism with smartphones, news sharing, hashtags for political movements.
If we could travel back in time and ask Alexander Graham Bell or Samuel Morse what they thought their technologies would be used for in the future, I doubt they'd say for sharing 'portraits'.
Whilst the roots of the telephone are situated very much in communication, an adapting world has led to an adapting technology.
Thanks to all for a that introduction - for all the archival discoveries that Sarah Jackson, Elizabeth Bruton, and Anne Archer pointed us to, and to Will Self for his dense, brilliant talk.
I'd like to get a sense from everyone else of whether they think that the violence and pathology that Will Self points to as somehow inherent in the phone - its interlacement with modern warfare, the possibility of slightly crazy conversations as if with oneself - are present even where they are not obvious - either in their own experience or in examples from literature, film, culture ... is this more the case with the phone than with - say - e-mail or the letter or the text?
Telephony and Time: Push Button 'A' (for 'perverse incentives')... To Call In An Airstrike.
Dear Sarah, Will, Elizabeth, Anne, Sam, Rose and Thomas (thus far),
I very much enjoyed this assemblage of introductory talks and comments.
Whether we can consider our own time/experience as "utterly modern" (Will's talk; 10:45-12:00 and 15:00-16:37; God, I hate pedants but most people TLDR or TLDL) or we can even think ourselves as/experience 'a falling away from that' is an interesting argument (in terms of the purity of our temporal experience of the phone as a medium/genre).
Google's BERT (Bidirectional Encoder Representations from Transformers), for example, where the text of our phonecalls can/will be literally read by AI backwards and forwards in time to make sense of it, sortof makes a mockery of this sense/understanding of the phone as a 'traditional' bidirectional medium (insomuch as it deliberately, if temporarily, erases the existence/knowledge of the speaker as being an interesting or important part of the 'making of meaning'). It also (to address Rose, Thomas and Sam's comments/concerns) is a clear extension of the DARPA (military-industrial) aspect of the internet (see also Stellarwind).
If the receiver can predict what you will say in advance (because you or others have said it before, even if only once ever in the history of recorded speech)... well. The phone, now more than ever, is a weapon of mass destruction.
McLuhan argued that '[no] society has ever known enough about its actions to have developed immunity to its new extensions or technologies' but he thought artists were pretty good at it (Gregory Bateson made the same argument in 'Steps'; 'the algorithms of the unconcious are doubly inaccessible'; pp. 138-139) - modelling immunity, I mean. This is why I found Will's mention of 'The Machine Stops' fascinating (I mention it in my talk, too, for arguably the same reason) and suggest people check out the work of Refik Anadol (links below), especially Melting Memories which induces us to consider how communication in the future will mean having our minds 'read' and 'Archive Dreaming' which demonstrates what will happen when the AI is left alone too long and starts communicating with itself.
(Aside: LOL, I always find it funny that McLuhan's elliptical/illustrative argument in UM about the power of light to communicate meaning is now a literal technology in the form of Li-Fi.)
I also found the connection drawn between elements of Elizabeth and Anne's talks regarding privacy and surveillance to be an interesting one (the village postmistress (in Elizabeth's talk) vs. MI5 (in Anne's); vs. Google, considering my own paper) and draw your attention to the use of the WeChat Deadbeat Map and the debtor's ringtone and the use of QR codes by beggars in China (so, no phone actually needed now, as long as everyone else has one and is connected). I am (like Sylvia P.) 'very much' a socialist and share the ramifications of such concerns (hi, Sarah; arguably TB-L does too, and in the feminist spirit of Pankhurst; see his talk at the Science Museum below).
Surveillance, like selfies (hey again, Rose), is a communicative form of (self-)discipline by which people now check themselves in the hallway mirror (of their peers' SM; a weapon of mass instruction, I guess) before venturing out into the world. That governments (in this time of the 'invisible enemy') and corporations and AI are all looking over our shoulders as we happily chat, share, click, model and revolt suggests a whole other level of haunting going on.
Love, Goodbye, Then, Don.
P.S. Tone vs. Ringtone vs. Dial-up tones....
I also found the vision of the early 6-page phonebook to be charming. Later versions (such as below) are also paralleled by the early WWW, which I believe (maybe apocryphal; it's pretty late here in Sydney - pretty sure, though) was also (early on) printed in/on paper, or 'all-listed web page books'. This, too, is a longstanding feature of books and their bibliographical/categorical function as well. For example, in 1909, Charles Eliot and William Allan Neilson of Harvard U. and the publisher Collier collaborated in a resounding act of modernist canonisation whose effects we can still see today, a 51-volume set of textbooks that could effectively equal a ‘liberal education’; literature – the so-called 'Shelf of Fiction' – was a later 20-volume addition (1917). See also the bibliographies of Conrad Gessner (1545) and Ibn Abi Al-Nadim (988).
P.P.S. In the interests of full disclosure, Will (if you're reading this/this deep), I should note I disagree with you (4:25-6:19; plus you in 2014, you and Robert Adams) about modernism vs. postpostpostmodernism and wrote a chunk of my PhD on why. Like a total lunatic (God, I hate people like this at conferences...), I quote:
"Comparing [Fred] Jameson to Self is instructive here – to Self, global catastrophe is background noise, inevitability creeps glacially, volcanic eruptions only seem sudden. Thus for Self – on narrative fiction following McLuhan here, upholding the pre-eminence of the medium (over the message) – ‘screens’ had long ago triumphed over novels (Finnegans Wake is roughly the point in time when television begins broadcasting in Britain). [However...] Self’s assumptions belie the complexity of how we, and people in other time periods, view time (‘the Renaissance invented the Middle Ages’, as Brian Stock put it). The critical idea that periodising / aestheticising categories (or informational densities, as we might now think of them) are dictated by their usefulness and our willingness to actualise them does not lessen the utility of ‘naming the age’ (explaining the world to itself in its own immediate terms, in an immanent critique). Unlike ‘the Roaring ’20s’ or ‘the Great Depression’, however, postmodernism is not only a name for an era, it is one that, in Jameson at least, stands for its critique."
It's way past midnight here. Apologies. I do say some nice things about you in the endnotes of my thesis, if that helps.
Right. If anyone wants to get a drink at the virtual pub (best bit of all conferences) and yell at me - firstname.lastname@example.org
Surveillance (If the Eye were an Animal, Sight would be its Soul)
"In China's Hebei province, a red circle sweeps out a radius on a map, like a naval radar scanning for enemy ships. It is the latest tool to be piloted as part of China's Social Credit System (SCS) that is geared at monitoring the behaviour of the Asian superpower's 1.4 billion citizens and separating the trustworthy from the disobedient. Nicknamed the Deadbeat Map, the mini program is accessible within Chinese social media platform WeChat and it allows users to pinpoint the location of those who have failed to pay their debts within a 500-metre radius. [...] In some parts of China, courts have also worked with tech companies to develop a special ringtone — if you ring a number linked to a dishonest debtor, you'll be warned with a siren and told to be careful in your business dealings with them."
"These beggars do not necessarily require mobile phones to operate their accounts. The collected money goes directly into the digital wallet of the beggar. The same QR sheet can also be used to buy things from stores after merchant scans it. All that is required is a library where an account can be set up and the digital wallet is ready without any fees. The wallet account creator does not even need a bank account [...]. According to some reports, businesses with pay these QR code beggars for every scan that is made. They then harvest data of the users and even sell their WeChat IDs [...]. User data can also be sold to the companies which then use these to pester customers with advertisements and unnecessary nudges."
Yo Google (aka Push Button 'A' and the science of performative rituals)
>>> CHECKOUT 11:30 TBL's machine; "vague but exciting" 1:15:00; William Gibson shoutout: "the future is [...] unevenly distributed" 1:23:00-1:34:00ish; "Enquire Within Upon Everything [and then write stuff too]" 1:37:30-1:39:39; why the WWW had to be free... ("do not power down") 1:45:30-1:50:15 <<<
>>> "This is our great covenant, to dwell together in peace, to seek the truth in love, and to help one another."
>>> I mean: "to provide a common (simple) protocol for requesting human readable information stored at a remote system, using networks [and...] to provide the software for the above free of charge to anyone."
WS, MM, GB, RA
The Early Phone/Book Listings
Many thanks for these varied opening remarks.
Elizabeth, I appreciate the reminder that the telephone offered unique employment opportunities for women. I had not thought (much) of the phone as a gendered technology (particularly given its inventors), but, I wonder, are you arguing for such a reading?
Anne, thank you for the rehearsal of early telephone etiquette. Like Sam, I was struck by the idea of an archive for corporate memory. In this vein, I found myself thinking about the ways your introduction signals relationships between, crosses the lines of corporate and in/corporeal histories. Any thoughts on this?
Sarah, when you say/write "allo," I hear the prefix "allo-" (from the Greek, to signal "other"/"Other"). Another implicit haunting?
Will, what is the connection between the multiplying "posts-" and the ellipses you reference?
Thanks again and best wishes,
Thank you for these comments, @amysara! I love the connecting line with the Greek 'allo-' for other/Other. It also reminds me of Cixous's lines in FirstDays of the Year about 'he and she in the halo [the halo, but you hear the telephone call: hello, it's me, hello, yes ....]'
I'm sure that you're already familiar with this, but some good texts on the gendered dimension of telephony include Michele Martin's Hello Central: Gender, Technology, and Culture in the Formation of Telephone Systems and Ned Schantz's Gossip, Letters, Phones: The Scandal of Female Networks in Film and Literature.
Thank you for sharing your papers, and for the comments. I'm really interested in Sam's question about the telephone's 'strange memory'. Part of this project has been an attempt to create some sort of archive of telephone calls (literary and otherwise), but that also means recognising the necessary impossibility of capturing the call which, like Deleuze's line of flight, can only ever be fleeting. Perhaps it is this that makes the call all the more haunting? It's something I want to think further about, but it also strikes me that there is a connecting line with Nick Royle and Andrew Bennett's discussion (Conversation 2) of Nick's memoir of his mother as itself a sort of immersion in 'memorial telephony'. They talk about the aporia generated by the desire to 'evocalise' the mother, and the recognition that there is, Nick says, no record of her voice in the world. I'd be really interested to hear what others think about the relationship between the archive and the call!
Thanks, Sarah, for these references and for reminding me of "halo"... I was also happy to realize that Laurent in Conversation 5 addresses the allo- as prefix!
on your question about the relation between the archive and the call ... I am nostalgic for the telephone because I am always wistful about anything that has passed. But I must say that from the point of view of the creation of archives the telephone was a dark time, wasn't it? letters and e-mails inadvertently create a wonderful record of life; in a sense, the period of the phone was one when life, at least as recorded in archives, was terribly thinned out; now, with e-mail, we are creating life in monstrous volume, at an awful pace. No?
Thanks @tkarshan, and yes! But it's precisely the seeming ephemerality of the call that interests me and one of the reasons I was attracted to exploring the BT Archives. (It continues to amaze me when I visit the Archives at Holborn Telephone Exchange how many letters there are about the phone).
I've also been reflecting on voicemail in relation to the archive; when I was at Blyth House (previously the stores for the Science Museum's collections) at the start of this project, I noticed a collection of answer-machines with the tapes preserved intact. But of course, we couldn't listen to them. I'm haunted by the idea of all those voices trapped inside their machines, and have been discussing with the curators the possibility of listening to the tapes - which, I understand, is no simple matter. (I'm reminded of a brilliant passage in Jon McGregor's novel Even the Dogs when Robert throws the telephone against the wall 'picking it up and throwing it and picking it up and throwing it until wires and circuit boards and silenced voices split from its broken body and were trodden into the floor.') I'm going way off-track here, but when I was listening to @ImogenFree (in Conversation 2) I was struck by the contrast between the image of Bowen's 'leaking' telephone and the 'jammed' voice inside the machine. These metaphors do something curious to our idea of the voice.
I think we'll find we are not quite out of the 'period of the phone' and there is a tremendous, building archive of those calls in that they are being built into the algorithmic processes by which calls will be placed in the future (imagine predictive text, as per your emails, as part of the functionality of your phonecalls...).
In the sense that the past is an archive, see the work of Refik Anadol.
@amysara thanks for your question – we may call our collection the ‘corporate memory’ to indicate that it captures the heritage of the organisation, but in reality the lines are not set there as you suggest. Our histories capture people, technology, culture, although generally within the context of the company…The records we hold are used for corporate purposes, but also for non-corporate - historical, artistic, technical and others.
In an administrative/business context, a ‘record’ is often said to be the evidence or trace of a transaction. That’s not necessarily true of individuals’ own papers (although it can be). Our collecting policy allows for some collection of personal papers, but that’s fairly exceptional and generally would only be those specifically relating to, or touching upon, the career of that person. Some other records that we collect cross boundaries between the two – staff journals and magazines, created within the organisation for a business reason, often contain personal recollections, stories and events that may have little to do with the business.
@tkarshan thanks for raising such an interesting point – while telephone calls were not generally captured in the archives (aside from telephone memos capturing the outline of conversations) I think we’ve replaced that today with other issues, potentially much more problematic for the archives and for the preservation of material. The sheer volumes of data, emails and social media being created today pose big challenges for archivists and content collectors, first of all in the identification of the material that has long-term value, and then in the preservation of it (and it will realistically only be a fraction that can be preserved). Digital preservation is a huge focus for archivists and others at the moment - digital data is just as fragile, possibly even more fragile, than paper and needs active preservation measures to ensure its longevity, so we may still have dark spots when it comes to certain types of material being created recently and today (especially more ephemeral material) although hopefully not the ‘digital black hole’ as warned by Google’s Vint Cerf.
Thank you for this great introduction. I've been thinking about Will Self's remark that he is not a fan of the telephone in relation to Muriel Spark's anxiety about being on the telephone and her decision to replace it with a fax machine so that she could evaluate her messages and decide to whom she wanted to reply. There is of course something unsettling about an unexpected (and potentially strange) identity impinging upon and demanding our full attention through the telephone line, but I wonder if dislike of the telephone also evidences wider anxieties about surrendering control (this is something explored through narrative form in The Comforters, as Annabel Williams points out in Conversation 5) and whether it may be related to the current decline of telephone conversation in favour of text-based technologies (email, Whatsapp, etc.) despite the fact it's (usually) easier for us to know the identity of the caller. I wonder if other writers, or perhaps historical/oral sources have touched on this issue?
Hi Beatriz, not sure if I'm speaking (up) out of turn but outside the 'literature' literature, there's a pretty standard argument that people are turning towards text/chat recordings/emoji as a way of navigating control specifically in the context of information overload.
Text allows you to split attention between multiple, competing tasks/distractions but it also allows you to manage your response (keep a straight face) which is arguably a reaction towards performance anxiety. Also old people 'like' talking on the telephone and go on and on (I'm told). So, some of it is probably techno-generational?