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>>> 2020-06-14 manifest telephone (PDF)

Some time ago I got into a discussion online which led me, once again, to articulate my belief in the spiritual significance of the telephone. I will try to articulate the point, somewhat more clearly, here.

Lately I have been reading Marc Reisner's "Cadillac Desert," an excellent and important book about the large-scale waste and destruction of the West's water resources. The book has been compared by some to "Silent Spring," which I think simultaneously illustrates that it is a good book on an issue of critical importance, but also shows the sad state that "Silent Spring" more or less triggered an environmental movement while the issues "Cadillac Desert" discusses have seen virtually no progress today.

Well, that's a bit besides the point, but there is something that Reisner talks about in the book that I think is important. From the beginning he explains that the projects to irrigate large areas for farming in the West were always economically undesirable. That is, consistently, the cost of building the irrigation project was much larger than the value of the farming it enabled. Yet, these projects were very politically popular, at most times across both parties---including the fiscal conservatives. So, one wonders, if not money, and if not agricultural production itself (as these projects frequently only enabled production of crops already available in excess), what led to all of these dams and waterworks?

Reisner argues that, in the American West, irrigation is a religious issue rather than a practical one. There is some justification for this right off the bat by observing that the Bureau of Reclamation was established principally by Mormons for whom it was quite literally a religious issue, but that almost misses the point. The important thing is that irrigation projects were pursued because they were righteous, because they were an important component of American ideals, the American ideal being, of course, fertile land, not open desert. The appeal of irrigation as a religious project to civilize the West drove politicians and engineers to pursue these works beyond all reason.

Of course, this sounds rather familiar, doesn't it. Most of us in school learn about a prominent spiritual movement with an impact on the West, and that is Manifest Destiny. In fact, the development of enormous irrigation works in the West like the Hoover Dam is, essentially, an extension of Manifest Destiny, but in the ever more ambitious sense that we ought not just settle the West but change it to fit our Eastern sensibilities.

The effect, I think, is not restricted to irrigation.

By near universal agreement, the concept of Manifest Destiny in textbooks, school lessons, and Wikipedia is illustrated by the painting "American Progress" by John Gast, which depicts droves of settlers headed west by horse, wagon, and train. Prominently, though, in the foreground, the painting features the lady Columbia headed west as well and stringing, behind her, a telegraph line.

When Gast painted "American Progress" in 1872, AT&T (or then, the Bell Telephone Company) had not yet quite been founded. The Long Lines division, with its explicit goal of connecting the nation, would not be established until six years later. Gast was most likely thinking at the time of the railroad telegraphy system and the early telegraph giants like Western Union[1].

One of the many lessons of the early 20th century is that it is difficult to operate any national enterprise when it takes weeks to convey messages between offices[2]. The railroads and the financial industry were some of the largest organizations to run into these problems, which is of course why they were early adopters of telegraphy.

It was in this context that AT&T got off the ground. While the divide between telephone and telegraph back then was somewhat larger than it is today (telephones having been enormously expensive early on), there was still a sense that the telephone was solving the same problem as the telegraph, and perhaps better. AT&T was at least a spiritual successor to Western Union, as well as claiming away most of their business.

AT&T really gained steam in the early 20th century. It was 1907 when AT&T essentially announced its intent to become a monopoly---"One System." Manifest Destiny had largely petered out by then, but I would argue that within AT&T, the spirit of "Telephone as Civilization," "Telephone as Progress of Man," and "Telephone as American Ideal" was stronger than ever. In fact, it was AT&T's rapidly acquired monopoly status that facilitated this fervor. Religious values do not especially thrive under capitalism, but AT&T was not subject to capitalism: they weren't just a phone company, they were the phone company, and the regulation that oversaw their monopolized service was just as devout in the religion of the telephone as they were.

This view of the telephone as religion can shed useful insight into the behavior of AT&T up to (and surely to some extent after) the breakup, but perhaps most significantly is a way of analyzing how AT&T changed after the breakup.

Prior to the breakup, AT&T expanded and improved their network with religious zeal. This dedication to their cause lead to the establishment of Bell Laboratories and, ultimately, to the transistor and in many ways to the computer. At the same time, it led to high consumer rates, because rates were determined not competitively but by AT&T's insatiable desire to invest.

Telephone was a religion less in the sense of Jesus Christ and more in the sense of George Washington. In the early 20th century these two were hard to separate from each other, Washington's apotheosis having been illustrated relatively recently. The First World War, and much more so the Second World War, challenged deities in more ways than one, and by 1950 Nietzsche would presumably have declared Gen. Washington to be dead.

AT&T, though, by merit of its unusual position as a protected monopoly, continued through the mid-century with a strong belief in its own god and continued to adulate it with the dial tone. Saul Bass's 1969 pitch reel introducing AT&T's new corporate branding system depicts some of this spirit, along with an example to remind us that the apparent insanity of the "Gravitational Pull of Pepsi" is a not a new phenomenon. This video is available on YouTube courtesy of the AT&T Archives and you absolutely must watch it, several times, if nothing else to appreciate the truly period fashion sense espoused in the new uniform designs.

More to this point, though, the video is a brilliant artifact of the trailing end of the period in which Telephone Men were an institution as strong as letter carriers once were, Telephone Women wore uniforms behind the switchboard to be seen by no one but themselves, and Telephone Executives had little Bell logos embroidered on their french cuffs.

Yes, it's a work of corporate branding and so essentially a work of corporate advertising and everything is shown in its best possible manifestation. But there are hints of the kind of care that we don't often see today. Outside plant crews wore a uniform under their coveralls, the coveralls to be removed whenever they entered a customer's premises to avoid bringing in dirt and grease. At least, this was the goal. Today the usually subcontracted telephone technicians set the lofty goal of arriving within a four-hour window and mostly miss it. I once had a long conversation with a technician subcontracted by CenturyLink about how he hoped to buy a self-service car wash and get out of the whole telephone mess. This conversation occurred as he frowned at his instruments and worried to me that the infrastructure was simply in too poor of repair to get VDSL to work on more than one pair. After over an hour of walking back and forth between house and pedestal, interspersed with phone calls related to said car wash acquisition, he declared it impossible to provide me the service I had tried to subscribe to. I rate this as a very positive interaction with CenturyLink's consumer division because he arrived, admittedly at the wrong time, but on the correct date, and at least put on the appearance of exerting real effort before declaring the telephone system hopeless.

This is all very anecdotal, of course, but the real point to examine is that of reliability. The first commandment of the religion of the telephone is "Thou shalt deliver a dial tone always." Much like Reisner's irrigation engineers fervently executed projects which would return cents on the dollar (in the best case), the Bell Systems' engineers invested their effort in chasing out yet another "nine" in reliability which would be hardly noticed by customers. Electronic telephone switches were built for enormous redundancy. WECo's[3] installation service coordinated armadas of technicians like choreographing dancers to transfer customer lines from an old switch to a new one in a matter of minutes and with only seconds of interruption per customer. In perhaps the crown Jewel of the Bell Systems' dedication to reliability, in 1930 the Indiana Bell building was moved in its entirety to make room for a new larger one---all while in active use, utility cables dragged slowly behind and a wooden walkway, practically airstairs, wheeled along with the building's entrance so that the staff could come in and out of their offices as usual.

In most industries, a service interruption might be scheduled to facilitate cutover to a temporary switch, then again to cut over to a new one. The Bell system routinely managed replacement of switches with zero downtime using strategies that varied from complex (splicing switching devices into in-use telephone wiring to prepare for "all at once" cutover) to whimsical (lining up in rows along the distribution frame, cable loppers in hand, to cut out the old switch in time to a supervisor's whistle).

There was, of course, a fall from grace.

I said that religion does not thrive under capitalism, and of course this was the fate met by the Bell system. The breakup of the Bell system in 1982 occurred primarily in response to their very high rates, which were (accurately) seen as symptomatic of the monopoly they enjoyed. The breakup was successful in reducing rates and was a key step towards the situation we have today in which multiple competitive cellular carriers are (mostly) driving their rates downwards over time.

But, of course, it is clear that AT&T's high rates were not exclusively a result of privileged profiteering. They were also a result of AT&T's enormous R&D budget, their dedication to reliability, and their generous staffing from customer service to engineering. The telephone system was never quite the Garden of Eden but competitive phone service certainly was forbidden fruit.

While costs have decreased tremendously, so have reliability and quality of service. The surviving fragments of the Bell System are now some of the most hated companies by consumers. They're often second only to their later upstart competition, the cable television carriers, which exist in a similar state of sin but, having grown up entirely in such a fallen state, lack even the memory of their former grace to moderate their avarice. I'm not sure what the seven deadly sins of the religion of the telephone are, but I can promise that Comcast is guilty of every one.

There is a great deal of economic analysis which can be done to explain the changes that the telephone system underwent after the breakup of the Bell system. The truth is sufficiently complex that it's hard to say whether or not the whole thing was a good idea. What does seem certain is that it was inevitable; if competition was the forbidden fruit, MCI was the serpent. Or perhaps Carterfone? Maybe Carterfone is the serpent and Sprint and MCI are Cain and Abel. I don't know, the metaphor could use more work.

All of this depicts a rather rosy and simplified view of the whole situation. Of course pre-breakup AT&T was far from pure virtue, and post-breakup there have been meaningful improvements in consumer service. The poor reputation of the telecom industry today has in part to do with market and social forces that probably would have existed regardless, late-stage capitalism and all, and a radically different world in which AT&T had, say, been nationalized and MCI, Sprint, etc. bought out by the new American Telephone and Telegraph Administration, taxpayer dollars at work, would presumably have all of its own downsides. Nothing is so simple. I'm just here to tell a nice story, though, and maybe there's some insight in it.

While the economic and regulatory analysis is important, I think it misses some of what happened: beyond a financial aspect, there is a social aspect to the history of the telephone system, and a good part of that social aspect is the rise and fall of a religion: not God's chosen people, but the Telephone Men. The telecom industry was already giving in to vice by the time of the breakup, but the breakup was the crisis of belief that led to complete atheism, and then, moral relativism. Or at least tariff relativism.

Whatever happened to traditional telephone values? The market is what happened. Well, the market and everything else.

[1] For the late 19th and early 20th century, the telegraph system was conjoined at the hip to the railroads, both being fundamentally involved in finding long-distance rights-of-way and the railroads relying in part on telegraphy for their own business. While railroads sometimes constructed their own telegraph lines they also often contracted this to Western Union. Until 1960, WU had work crews which lived in modified passenger trains to maintain WU equipment on railroad RoW.

[2] A rather vivid demonstration of the slow travel of news prior to the dual revolutions of the railroad and telegraph is California's admission as a state. On Sept. 9 1850, California was admitted to the United States. No one in California knew this fact until Oct. 18, over a month later, when the ship Oregon arrived having carried goods---and incidentally news---all the way around South America. This was a long journey, but the overland trip from East to West was even longer. Incidentally, of personal interest, New Mexico was established as a territory at the same time.

[3] Like Bell Labs was the research and development arm of the Bell System, Western Electric Company or WECo was the manufacturing arm, which built and serviced designs out of Bell Labs, and did no small amount of R&D on its own. Like Bell Labs, WECo was lain fallow after the Bell breakup. What remains is scattered across the telephone industry, especially Avaya, but the core of WECo, along with Bell Labs, is now part of Nokia.