Thursday, August 30, 2007

Carpe Diem

Yesterday the Los Angeles Times reported that, as of the 19th of next month, "Time of day calling it quits at AT&T." Of course, as a child, one of the first numbers I memorized was 853-1212, the local Southern California number for time. I just called the number and thought that the voice was definitely different from the voice of my childhood. As the article points out, the ubiquitous availability of self-synchronizing cellular telephones has made the time service largely obsolete.

When my children are anxiously awaiting a particular moment, I've still been known to tell them to call time, if exactitude is so important to them. The pathos of this dependence of children on the telephonic reassurance of women's voices provides one of the most memorable anecdotes that is retold in Mark Poster's book Information Please.

Of course, I'm fascinated with how gender and technology intersect during the early years of information science, whether it is Warren Weaver saying "An engineering communication theory is just like a very proper and discreet girl accepting your telegram" or Vannevar Bush talking about the Vocoder machine and how a "girl strokes its keys languidly and looks about the room and sometimes at the speaker with a disquieting gaze."

Women involved in telephone technology played an important role in the information revolution of the last century, as an IEEE exhibit Nurturing the Network: Women in the Communications Industry makes plain, but early computer scientists who were trying to build authority for a new discipline with a more masculine reputation often consigned women to intermediary secretarial or switchboard roles. Perhaps one of the worst was J.C.R. Licklider who illustrated scientific papers with pictures of cartoon women in bikinis and opined that "one can hardly take a military commander or a corporation president away from his work to teach him to type."

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Blogger Lupton said...

Readers may also enjoy my sister Ellen Lupton's book, "Mechanical Brides," which features some wonderful advertisements and other glimpses into the erotic and social life of objects, including the telephone, the washing machine, and the toaster.

6:21 AM  
Blogger Nedra Weinreich said...

As another SoCal kid growing up, 853-1212 was a regular part of my life. Now I can't remember the last time I called a phone number for Time. Related to lupton's comment above about the "erotic and social life of objects," I remember that when you called that number (I don't remember if it was in between the rings or in between the announcements once connected), you could hear other people who were on at the same time. Many people quickly said their phone numbers for other random strangers to call them or had short conversations, depending on how many people were talking at the same time. Back then, telephones really were the way people connected with each other.

10:11 PM  

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