Keeping in touch

We stopped into a dingy thrift shop today just to pass some time between one thing and another, and I was pleased to come out with a new little treasure.

This is a solid glass cobalt blue paperweight from the American Bell Telephone Company or “Ma Bell,” the original U.S. telephone company founded in 1877 and named after Alexander Graham Bell, the man who invented the telephone in 1876. It was purchased by the American Telephone & Telegraph Co. (AT&T) in 1899, which proceeded to become one of the largest monopolies in the world. (Learn more.)

Interesting article in Slate from 2007 regarding AT&T:

Ma Bell is back. Blown into eight pieces by an antitrust court in 1984, AT&T, like a self-repairing robot, has slowly put itself back together. Last Friday, the Federal Communications Commission, demanding net neutrality and other conditions, approved AT&T’s acquisition of BellSouth. That will make AT&T—once again—the world’s largest technology company. And don’t just think big. Think Goliath, with about $110 billion in annual revenue, more than 300,000 employees, and 90 million paying accounts. Google, by way of comparison, brings in about $9 billion a year. Even Microsoft, at $45 billion, is a mere elephant compared to the AT&T mammoth.

So, should you be afraid? A little. AT&T will wield power over the nation’s information networks to a degree unprecedented in the Internet age. How you feel about that depends on whether you trust the company, and unfortunately, AT&T has the corporate version of a criminal record. From the 1950s through the 1970s, AT&T—while creating the greatest network on earth—also killed long-distance competition, bottled up new technologies like the cell phone and home answering machine, and resisted the innovations that were later known as “the Internet.” Some will argue that letting AT&T run the nation’s networks is like putting Hannibal Lecter in charge of making dinner.

In my youth, long-distance telephone was the most important service in my life, just the way the internet is now: I could not imagine being without it. When my family moved away from my home town for a couple of years when I was in junior high, it kept me in touch with my friends in both cities. When I went off to summer camp for weeks at a time as a teen, it kept me from self-destructing with loneliness. When I left home for college and then for work, it consumed huge chunks of my monthly budget because back then, long-distance calls were charged by the minute, with higher rates during the day and lower rates in the evening. Every minute I was on the telephone, I was watching the clock and calculating the cost, and the monthly AT&T bills were sometimes shocking and onerous. (Readers my age and older will relate, but younger readers might not even realize there was a time when long distance calling was a luxury.) I could not have survived being away from my family and friends without the telephone that was my primary connection to everyone I loved.

I still call my parents every week, and my sister at least that often, because talking on the phone is how we have always kept in touch with one another. But old friends I used to call and chat with for hours now just email periodically, or we watch each other’s posts on Facebook. One friend I’ve known since high school does not use email or Facebook (no computer at home), does not text (too time-consuming), and doesn’t answer her phone. She also claims not to know how to empty the full mailbox on her phone so that I can leave her a message. Apparently the only way she communicates with anybody other than face-to-face is by “picting,” which is sending a single photograph (taken with her phone) by text message. Since I don’t have a data plan on my cell phone, it can’t receive images, so this friend and I don’t keep in touch anymore, I’m sorry to say. With so many options available, it would be nice if she would choose one that I am able to use also, but she finds them all simply too inconvenient. With all the marvelous things that smart phones can do these days, we seem to have forgotten that they are still telephones that can carry our voice to the people we love.

AT&T’s slogan for many years was “Reach out and touch someone.” A phone call is a high-touch communication in a high-tech, hands-off world. I stand in favor of bringing it back again.


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