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Joining the parade

By August Heckscher / January 7, 1983



The big push is on to get people to purchase their own telephones, instead of paying a kind of monthly rent for them as in the past. Along with the encouragement to buy comes a whole new range of options designed to tempt the comsumer. Not only will telephones of the near future come in all colors of the rainbow, and in all sizes, but in various shapes and historical or decorative styles. Their mechanical or electronic features will differ also, with some being merely a rough equivalent of what we now know and others shedding their cords, or being tuned to dial automatically or (for all I know) to provide the day's news or the night's fare of entertainment. I am not certain what legal or corporative developments are behind this new approach; but I don't like it, and I am not amused.

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Not long since, the telephone was one of the few objects in our gadget-ridden civilization which could be counted on to remain the same in outward appearance, while it provided practically fool-proof services. Amid flux it was one constant element; amid breakdowns and the dissolution of material things it remained imperturbably efficient. No one really thought of getting a new telephone - the old one worked so well. Besides, it seemed to come free from the telephone company, an act of grace by some anonymous benefactor - and who was going to look this gift horse in the mouth, or in the mouthpiece? When the classic Ford came in all colors, provided they were black, the telephone vied with it in being authoritative and unquestioned.

There had been changes in the telephone over the years, of course, and those with long memories can recall the subtle alterations which came about mysteriously and unannounced. Somewhere along the evolutionary line this household necessity turned from being a thing of two pieces, with the earphone being lifted off a hook, to the sleek one-piece version of today. At some point its two ends have come to look so alike that one can never be sure one is not talking into the place where one should be listening, or vice-versa. In my youth there was no danger of such confusions.

The telephone I first remember was an apparatus of considerable bulk, fastened to the wall of a small porch or outdoor extension of our house. It had at one side a little crank which one turned industriously to get the operator's attention, and it required for conversation a good deal of unrestrained lung-power.

There were, I now see, certain advantages in these arrangements. A pleasant communal understanding united the family, for no one could talk without being overheard. And no one could talk for very long. At least in the colder seasons, exposure kept conversations to a reasonable length. The machine, as I have often told teen-agers, was designed as a way of arranging a rendezvous, not as a substitute for one.

By what degrees the telephone emerged from this primitive form and function to the compact marvel we now know, I am hardly aware of, the changes having been so imperceptible and nearly always so benign. But now, as I understand it, a whole flood of progress is going to descend upon us. I can imagine new models being announced annually, or perhaps semi-annually, with a householder being confronted by bewildering choices which massive advertising campaigns seek to influence. I can imagine myself going into some emporium where the new contrivances are sold and announcing that I want a telephone: a telephone exactly like last year's model, one without new features, new improvements, new complexities. I shall be looked on as an apparition from another age.

That our consumer society should provide variety, that styles and fashions should change, I recognize as a good thing. A certain savor is thereby added to life; the human personality is given outward form and expression. But it is an advantage, too, that some things should remain constant with a man or woman being spared, in some areas the burden of making choices amid conflicting claims. The telephone was once a symbol and proof of this durability. I am sorry to see it join the parade of passing fashion and of so-called progress.