Inside the Digital Society: A phone is not a phone

Words change their meaning over time – but the words we use have lasting impacts on the ways in which we see things. This week I’m asking what we mean when we talk about the “telephone” (or “phone”). Some history (general and personal). And some questions about how that affects our current thinking.

A brief history of the telephone

Invented in the 1870s, but a luxury for most until the present century.  

Only in America, until the 1960s, did many households have a phone at home. Not even in relatively rich Europe were they common. For many Europeans growing up then, like myself, watching US sitcoms and listening to US pop, those landlines that were so important to the lives of American teenagers were symbols of American prosperity.

And, if for Europe, more so for the global South. The Maitland Commission found in 1984 that more than half the world’s population lived in countries with fewer than 10 million phones between them. There were more phones then in Tokyo than in the whole of Africa. Some countries had less than one telephone for every thousand people – and most of those phones belonged to governments and businesses. The goal back then, in public policy, was public payphones.

But it’s different now. In the majority of countries, the phone’s close to ubiquitous, or seems so. There are more of them about, worldwide, than there are people. The ITU estimates that, even in the least connected country, there’s one for every four of us.  

What’s happened? Eight changes, which I’ll come to in a moment. But first, a personal history of the phone, because it illustrates our changing attitudes.

A personal history

When I was a child, in northern England, lower middle class, the phone was in a public callbox at the end of the street. It was for big news – births, marriages and deaths; never for casual chat. And there was, usually, a queue to use it.

My family first had its own phone when I went to secondary school, in the mid-1960s. It was a party line, shared with another family whom we didn’t know. You could pick up the handset and hear them talk about their lives as likely as you’d hear dialtone. They could do the same. Not a lot of privacy in that.

Nor was this a global service. When my sister’s husband died, in Spain, in 1962, she had to book an international call six hours ahead to tell us. (It still took me as long three decades later to book a call from Moscow back to London.)

I first held a mobile phone in the later 1980s, a few years after brick-like carphones had been introduced in Britain. (One of Britain’s leading phone suppliers is still called ‘Carphone Warehouse’.)  As a trade union official, I was proud custodian of the union’s mobile phone at conferences. Its only phone. Imagine the prestige. I first had my own mobile in 1994, to field press questions about a book I’d written.

And now of course I don’t leave home without one. My keyring has an attachment to tell me where my phone is before I step outside the door, lest I forget it. And if I want to make a “phone call”, I’m as like to use a service that isn’t real telephony (through Skype or WhatsApp).

Eight changes

We know that access to connectivity is still unequal – but this rate of change is much faster than has happened in other areas we think essential, like electricity or sanitation.  What are the eight changes that have taken place?

First, the phone has changed from fixed to mobile. In the 1990s mobile phones were rare. Now there are nine times as many mobile as fixed lines.

Second, the presence of phones – for most people in most places – has gone from rare, through commonplace to almost universal. It’s no longer connectivity that keeps people unconnected in all but the remotest spots, it’s affordability.

Third, our use of phones has changed from public to private. Before the turn of the century, and in many places later, payphones were the key to access. Recently the last payphone was removed in Switzerland. In Britain, they’re preserved as artefacts of history and turned to other uses (housing defibrillators, artworks, libraries). They still matter, obviously, where access is less widespread, but usage even there’s declining as more people own their own.

Fourth, the technology has changed – not just from fixed to mobile, but through generations of innovation in network architecture. Around the turn of the century, we described this as a change from POTS to PANS (‘plain old telephone service’ to ‘pretty amazing new stuff’). Witty, huh? It’s much more amazing now, and getting more so by the year.

Fifth, so has the ownership. For most of the twentieth century, phone companies in most countries outside North America were government monopolies. From the mid-1980s, a wave of privatisation and liberalisation swept over telecoms. Almost everywhere today phone markets are competitive; in most places, the biggest players are always private companies.

Sixth, the basis of telecoms has changed from voice to data. “It’s good to talk” was BT’s (British Telecom)’s advertising slogan in the 1990s. But landlines in Britain are now really delivery channels for broadband internet, while the volume of mobile data traffic overtook that of voice traffic worldwide ten years ago. Today, data’s massively more significant to usage and to business models.

So what about the phones themselves? Seventh, the switch from tethered landlines to handheld mobiles means they now belong to individuals rather than to households, businesses or government departments. My phone’s my own. My conversations on it aren’t overheard by other members of the family, as they would be in my teens.

The phone is not a phone

And, most importantly – this is the real point of this blog – the phone is not a phone. It’s a mini-computer, a multi-purpose digital device, a personal assistant, the nearest thing we have to the ‘tricorder’ in that TV icon of the 1960s, Star Trek, a device which could tell you the answer to anything you needed (in order to move the plot along – indeed, a very ‘plot device’).

When I travel on the London Underground, most of my fellow travellers are on their “phones” – but they aren’t using them as phones: there is no signal down there. They’re listening to music, reading books, playing games, in some places (London’s Underground’s been slow on wifi) browsing the internet.

I do make calls on mine, but I use it much more to browse the internet or Twitter, text and message people, play music via Bluetooth on my car radio or when I walk the dog, and, embarrassingly, yes, play games. Don’t we all?

So does this matter?

This is not the first time, of course, that the telecoms device has moved on faster than our language. It was several decades after manufacturers stopped making phones with dials that people stopped saying they had dialled someone.  

Does it matter? I think in some ways that it does, at least if it means we deal with public policy on “phones” and “phone networks” as if they’re what they were rather than what they have become.

Many of the ways in which our phone networks are regulated are still, to some extent, legacies of the past (not least requirements to maintain payphone networks in countries where they’re hardly ever used). But the relationships between networks, service providers, platforms and users today are very different from those in the days when many of our traditional regulatory structures and ways of thinking were developed.  

Governance arrangements change more slowly than technology, and outdated governance suits some, not others. It may, for example, distort competition in favour of new entrants using unregulated or less regulated technologies, at the expense of more traditional suppliers (Skype against France Telecom, perhaps, or Amazon against bookstores, Netflix against traditional TV, Facebook against the “mainstream media”.) In doing so, it may even unintentionally facilitate new types of market (and geographic) dominance.

We need to think about today’s networks, services and devices as what they are today. We may still want to call a “phone” a phone, but we should stop thinking about it as if it is one.

Next week: what digital inclusion means for different people.

Image: iPhone by the Phone Booth, by Michael on Flickr Commons

David Souter writes a weekly column for APC, looking at different aspects of the information society, development and rights. David’s pieces take a fresh look at many of the issues that concern APC and its members, with the aim of provoking discussion and debate. Issues covered include internet governance and sustainable development, human rights and the environment, policy, practice and the use of ICTs by individuals and communities. More about David Souter.
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