Monday, April 13

I learned how to dial on a rotary phone. Listen for the dial tone. Put a finger in the hole over the number you want, turn it ‘til it stops, and let it roll back. Listen to the clicks. Repeat.

In the 90s, when half of what my dad seemed to do for a living was an elaborate resource allocation game conducted in the menu trees of corporate voicemail systems, he had this gadget that would play touch tones into the handset so you could use the old rotary phones that were still littered all over the landscape. The kind of technical ephemera that you get as one kind of network thrashes its way towards becoming another thing altogether.

If you’d told me back then that I’d mourn fundamental qualities of that phone system (with its by-the-minute long-distance charges and 14.4 modems) in a time when I have access to hundreds of computers and an always-on Internet connection, I’m not sure what I would have thought.

My parents got rid of their landline earlier this year. I don’t think they would have, necessarily, but the service had degraded beyond usability by the time they finally gave up on it. For a while there, it’d go out completely if it rained enough. There was strange crackling on the line, and finally just an error tone of some sort when you tried to dial in. This is how the old world dies: Piece by piece, quietly, at the edges, a decade or three after the fact of its obsolescence.

(I wrote a draft of this fragment a month ago, and looking through my bookmarks I guess it must have been prompted by reading “A Longing for the Lost Landline”, which is exactly the sort of NYT opinion piece you’d expect from the title.)

tags: topics/phone

p1k3 / 2020 / 4 / 13