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The Party Line Revisited

Rotary Telephone

The phrase “Time out of mind” refers to the distant past beyond memory. While we think of computer networks as laying the foundation of electronic social networks, it’s the telephone that first connected the country. And the user interface challenges and the viral qualities of that once new medium have slipped beyond the horizon of our living memory.

We assume that the user interface for the telephone is known and has always been known. But there was a time when people had to be taught to use the phone. What’s a dial tone? What’s a busy signal? Where do you find a number for a particular person or business? How do you dial a rotary phone? Why do you need to wait until the dial returns to its starting position before inputting the next number? What’s that ringing sound mean?

Why should anyone understand these interface elements? The film above was shown in movie theaters to help people with the change from operator assisted to direct dial calls.

We think of the party line as quaint artifact of the past, but like certain modern online services, it was used as a source of entertainment and gossip, as well as a means of quickly alerting entire neighbourhoods in case of emergencies such as fires.

In 20th century telephone systems, a party line (also multiparty line or Shared Service Line) is an arrangement in which two or more customers are connected directly to the same local loop. Prior to World War II in the United States, party lines were the primary way residential subscribers acquired local phone service.

Sometimes pundits like to make the argument that microblogging services like Twitter or are too difficult or obscure for “most ordinary people” to learn. Compare using Twitter to learning how to direct dial a telephone. If there’s value returned, people are will to invest the time and learn enough to profit.

There are other interesting comparisons between the phone network and the internet. The dystopian visions about The Phone Company match our current fears about the harvesting of our personal and attention data. Once we’ve internalized a user interface like the telephone’s, we begin to fear that it will be literally internalized into our bodies. The 1967 film The President’s Analyst envisioned the Cerebrum Communicator, a device that is located in, and power by, our brains. It also showed us a technology company secretly at the center of political power.

The telphone has become the mobile computer, and voice is now one of many data types transmitted through the Network. But the basic pattern of relating through an electronic network remains the same. The telephone still has a lot to teach us about the meaning of electronic social networks.

Published in digital hci interaction design network value zettel


  1. Cliff, there was a discussion of this post in broad terms on Newsgang Live, the show recorded 9/10/08. The convergence becomes more natural, easier to see and part of the the common conversation as the language helps the listener to understand in terms they can wrap their minds around. As with recovery and technology, often the simplest terms cause the most confusion in the biggest brains. Having experienced party lines even at my young age, the metaphor is clear and the language speaks to me. Perhaps as we keep talking at NGL we can find the words to help others comprehend the future in the present and which ring we're supposed to pick up.

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