—14— A Pavlovian response to the ring

Benjamin Rubin — Director at Center for Data Arts, The New School

[Transcript of video]
In all the talks I give, I can’t even think of another time when it seemed I should write out my talk. But, for some reason, that became the case for this one. I’m going to read this one:

I became obsessed with telephones when I was 3 or 4 years old and my interest has never flagged. My obsession with telephones isn’t really exactly part of my work — sometimes it creeps into my art practice — but usually not. I’ve never been asked to actually speak about telephones before. I find that I have a great deal to say — all the years of accumulating thoughts of telephones. I have seven hundred and thirty five slides but I’ll try to keep it within ten minutes. There are a lot of things that I need to talk about when it comes to phones.

The first things that I need to address are the sounds and the Model 500 phone. We had one when I was growing up. That was the phone in the house and it lived on a little phone nook that was built for that purpose. I associate the object with the sounds that I remember hearing and I will play:

8 0 2 4 7 2 *ring* 5 1 6 7 8 8 *ring* Next is the ESS ring. It’s the only type of ring that’s used on ESS. Eventually all offices will have this ring.

Busy signals.
Probably a lot of you have never heard a busy signal. They don’t happen anymore. The sounds, those sounds, are not only sort of nostalgic interests but what is fascinating about them is that they were all mechanically generated. They were generated by machines that would spin around and magnets and coils and various kinds of apparatus that lived in these central switching offices. And that is why that tape had been put together that I played a little of. It had a hundred different examples of ringtones and busy signals from all around the country. They all sounded different, because the wear and tear on each device is different – base don different models.

A sense of familiarity.
There was a kind of specificity when you called somewhere. The sound you would hear would reflect the physical equipment between you and and your destination. But not only that, these sounds were not for us — they actually drove the system. It was the sound that told the switching system how to switch and what to do. Those sounds were talking to the equipment, in a sense. We still hear some of these sounds when we place a call now, but they’re not any longer part of the apparatus in the way that they used to be. They’re now just provided for our comfort and to give us a sense of familiarity, now that we have all transitioned over to completely digital phone systems. They’re no longer necessary.

The mechanical copper ballet
The mechanical copper ballet was the automatic switching system, which is a real marvel of 20th century engineering. The system used the click click click click click sounds that the rotary dial mechanism makes to drive relays, motors, gears, and cogs that would cause copper, to touch copper, to touch copper, in a series of switching centers across whatever distance you happen to be dialing. Until finally a single circuit was completed between you and the person that you had called. Between the receiver in your hand was physically wired, it was connected by copper, a continuous line of copper to the receiver in the hand of the other person. Another sound — these are the dancers in the copper ballet — the various components of the mechanical switching system which I find quite fascinating.

The hiss.
The hiss is a sound that I used to hear on the phone line when I was in college. It is a sound I came to know during tearful pauses in long distance conversations to faraway girlfriends. A soft snowy static that only became audible when there was nothing to say. An expensive sound, since long distance calls were once very expensive.

The void.
n the early 90s the first digital long distance phone networks stopped actually transmitting any information during pauses in conversation. This saved the telephone companies a huge amount of bandwidth, so a huge amount of money. But there were a few years where everyone on long distance calls kept saying, “Hello? Are you still there. I don’t hear anything”, because that hiss was gone. The static in between the words was being stripped away and silence is not the same thing as that sort of sound of the silent connection. So we missed that. It’s what told us that we were connected to each other, and that that circuit was complete. That sound has been sort of synthesized, and I think there’s a more or less fake version of it that’s eased back into the system so that we don’t have that strangely disconcerting total silence during the pauses. But it is not real. It is no longer actually carrying information, it is just sort of noise that’s been reinserted again for our comfort.

The ring.
That is the sound of the Model 500. What was striking as I was thinking about that sound is how my feelings about the sound of a ringing phone have really changed since I was a kid.

When I was a child that sound usually meant that a friend or neighbor was calling or a relative, and the sound really had entirely positive connotations for me. When I hear that bell it’s like a Pavlovian response — it is a good one. But when my cell phone rings or beeps or buzzes whether it is a text or call, I now feel this mix of dread, fear, and annoyance. What now? What did I forget to do? What decision am I about to be asked to make? What new disaster has befallen me or the world?

And even when I take into account my perspective now — as an adult and a father versus my perspective as a child and that nostalgia lens that is there —  it still strikes me that until now our current era phones were the only real way that people had to reach out and touch someone, as the AT&T slogan of the 70s and 80s said. If you wanted to say hello or just make contact, that was how you did it. And so there were probably proportionately more happy calls that you were happy to receive.

Now, it is almost never that I’m happy about getting a call. It is not generally good. I think there is a general sentimental nostalgia associated with that sound.

People put it on their cell phones, although that is kind of going out of style. But I wonder to what extent this is tied up in the fact that the sort of message contained within the phone call is now less likely to be, “Hi, I was thinking about you” than, “Where is that damn check?”.

One of the questions I kept asking myself as I was trying to find a through line through all my years of obsessing about phones, why am I still so interested in phones? I was interested as a 3 and 4 year old and I’m interested now. Why? I think some of the poems that we heard really got to this: the phone is this technological embodiment of communication itself. There’s something really basic about it. It is a channel through which we communicate with each other. That is what it is designed to do. I was very interested when I did the survey that sent out, I got caught up happily in answering the questions.

What do I wish I could know about this Model 500 phone? One of the things I wish I could know is, where did it spend its working lifetime. Here is a touch tone version of the Model 500 that worked on the desk of this police sergeant. How did this one spend its working life? Was it in a home? Was it in a business? Was it in a library? Did it have an easy life sitting on a polished mahogany desk of an attorney? Or was it assigned to a large and raucous suburban family, its receiver often slammed down or dropped on the floor or used as a weapon by one sibling against another?

This particular phone here — it is identical to the one we were given, but it is not the same one —  is one that we have in our house, our family, and this one belonged to my wife’s grandmother. She worked as a receptionist and sole employee for her husband, who was an ophthalmologist in Philadelphia, and she answered this particular phone for nearly 50 years in that office. It has all of that in it, somehow. I wonder which numbers were most frequently dialed.

This is the actual phone that I was given for OBJECT AMERICA. Which were the numbers that were dialed most frequently on this phone? What good news and bad news came through this particular device? How many times has laughter passed through its old circuits — or crying — or yelling? What languages have traveled up and down its lines? What did it sound like when it rang? Unfortunately, this one doesn’t ring. We hooked it up but couldn’t get it to ring. And when it did ring, who would answer? Was the person on the other end likely to be a friend, a relative, or a neighbor, or a client, or a patient? These are the questions I think that I would like to know about this phone. And they’re not really things that can be known.

Trying to specify a method for investigating it or at least trying to get clues to be able to imagine its prior life, one should inspect the phone look, for special signs of wear. Is the paint around some digits more worn than others? Inspect the phone’s surface and note all the distinctive markings. Could you pick this particular Model 500 out of a lineup? Unscrew the earpiece and remove the capsule inside and look for dust, or hair, or any other identifiable debris that may have gathered there and then do the same for the mouthpiece. Unscrew the base and remove the black cover. Identify the parts and trace the electrical circuits through the components inside: the dialing mechanism, the ringer, etc.

Reassemble. Plug the phone in to your home phone jack, if you still have a landline. Pick up the phone. Listen to the dial tone. Dial the number of someone that you want to talk to and have a conversation. Hang up. Leave the phone connected for a couple of months. Use it whenever the opportunity arises. Teach your kids how to dial a number on a rotary phone. Spend weeks imagining the past lives this phone has lived and wondering about the conversations it’s been part of.

Ben Rubin

Artist and designer Ben Rubin was named Director of the Center for Data Arts in January, 2016. Rubin’s innovative applications of media and information technology have been seen at museums, public spaces, and performance venues around the world. Rubin’s best-known work includes the media installations Moveable Type (2007), a permanent artwork for the lobby of the New York Times building, and Listening Post (2002); both installations were created in collaboration with Mark Hansen.