Telephonic Territories.

The Landline Phone As a “Place-Dependent” Sound Technology

Mette Simonsen Abildgaard



Since its invention in the late nineteenth century, the telephone has changed everyday life in fundamental ways: as a way to gain access to a private household, keep in touch with family or work at a distance, maintain friendships, and handle emergencies. As an auditory technology, the telephone represents a paradigm shift in everyday communication, from letters and telegraphy to instant verbal communication at a distance. This shift, especially as it occurred in the introduction of telephony into everyday life until the early 1930s, has been the subject of a number of studies, particularly within history of technology (Fischer 1988; Fischer 1992; Green 1995; Martin 1991; Marvin 1988; Mueller 1989; Sterne 2003; Wistoft 2007). Drawing upon many principal contributions to the study of telephony, this first wave of literature deals with the transition from professional to social uses in the early twentieth century (Fischer 1988) and the gendered practices of telephone use (Martin 1991; Marvin 1988). However, there are also two important omissions: The geography and materiality of the home as an irreducible element of landline telephones is treated only summarily, and the majority of studies within the history of technology are interested in the expansion of landline telephony until 1930, thus omitting crucial innovations and shifts in practices in the late twentieth century (Dimmick, Jaspreet and Patterson 1994), when landline telephony became commonplace (Abildgaard and Humphreys 2020). A second wave of research on telephony came about following the advent of mobile and smartphones in the 1990s, when the term “mobile revolution” was used by media and communication researchers to describe how everyday life was becoming increasingly spatially and temporally mobile (Siau and Shen 2003; Steinbock 2005). Mobile and smartphone use is a wide-ranging and evolving field of research which, since its inception, has been framed, to a remarkable degree, in terms of risk – in relation to sleep patterns, concentration issues, addiction, brain tumors, or use while driving (see Burgess 2004 for a study of cell phones and their “phantom risks”). A smaller, but more broadly-framed section of research is devoted to mobile telephony’s impact on everyday interactions and the ensuing transformation of public and private space (e.g., Katz 2006; Katz and Aakhus 2002; Ling 2004; Humphreys 2005; Ling and Campbell 2011; Ling and Donner 2013; Kadylak et al. 2018), with some scholars even arguing that public places have become “colonized” by the private lives of individuals using mobile phones (Geser 2002). In studies of mobile phone use in relation to the home, the advent of mobile telephony has been described as a way of overcoming the spatial boundaries of the home, especially for youths to avoid surveillance and subvert existing "power geometries of space” (Ito 2005: 134). Research on mobile phones can be thought of as a reframing of telephony, and as such it has emphasized significant aspects of telephony that, in hindsight, are also relevant for scholarship on landline use, such as looking beyond the naturalized family unit or home as a necessary framework for understanding telephony (Morley 2003). This has been illustrated, for example, by Hijazi-Omari and Ribak’s 2008 study of mobile phone use among Palestinian girls, which showcased how practices such as receiving and using secret mobile phones given by boyfriends challenged intergenerational and cross-gender relationships. Underscoring the connections between landline and mobile use, Hijazi-Omari and Ribak’s study is mirrored in an example from this article, where I discuss a secret landline phone owned in the 1980s by one of this study’s participants. 


Regrettably, such similarities across decades and between landline/mobile technologies are rarely addressed in research on twenty-first century telephony. Studies on smart and mobile phone use typically position themselves in relation to the “first wave” research on early landline telephony and, in so doing, omit developments after 1950 when telephones were being used increasingly by users of all ages, in a range of contexts and in a spectrum of public settings (telephone booths and offices, for example), as part of everyday communication (Abildgaard 2019). An inadvertent consequence of this gap between the literatures is thus that analyses of contemporary mobile social life and interactions consistently shoehorn previous media and communication technologies and practices into an “immobile” or “fixed” (Fortunati 2001) category without offering a similarly nuanced analysis of their varied forms and limitations.  


What I thus propose in this article is to redirect the interest into how mobility has changed social life toward an investigation of the features of the technologies in widespread use immediately before the “mobile revolution.” As mentioned above, the technological practices of this period have not been studied as attentively as the current changes in media and communication technology have been, particularly as these changes relate to landline telephony. For instance, a distinguishing feature of the landline telephone is that, in contrast to almost all telephones in use today, it belonged to a place. As a point of entry into this period immediately before the mobile revolution of the 1990s, my object of study in this article is the overlooked history of the landline telephone and how, as an auditory technology, it has had a complex relation to place and (im)mobility in private homes in Denmark during the mid-to-late twentieth century. 


The repercussions of landline telephony as “place-dependent” are explored in the following through concepts derived from sound studies and science and technology studies (STS). The central approach draws upon Brandon LaBelle’s concept of “acoustic territories” as a way of thinking about sound as situated and localized and, consequently, how acoustic space “brings forward a process of acoustic territorialization, in which the disintegration and reconfiguration of space […] becomes a political process” (LaBelle 2010: xxiii, emphasis in original). While LaBelle’s writings encompass underground territories, streets, neighborhoods, moving cars, and the infrastructure of transmission towers, my aim is to further our understanding of acoustic territorialization through an in-depth analysis of the “acoustic politics of space” (LaBelle 2010: xxiii) in regards to the telephone as a shared technology in the home. I am emphasizing in particular the role of users in consuming, reconfiguring, and designing telephony (Oudshoorn and Pinch 2003). In this endeavor, I draw upon domestication studies, a sub-field of media studies and STS, which is interested in particular in the consumption and active transformation processes of media and technology as they merge with the domestic setting. In particular, I find Livingstone’s concept of “accounting practices,” i.e. “practices through which people understand and explain the role of domestic technologies in their lives” (Silverstone and Hirsch 2005: 104), helpful in understanding how rules and moralities arising within the “acoustic politics” of family settings are constructed and upheld. However, rather than remaining with media consumption processes – presented in classic domestication studies as primarily social and often linear –  I introduce and apply an approach to material agency inspired by Actor-Network Theory/ANT (Law 2008) in order to better understand how these “accounting practices” are upheld (or subverted) in families.


Attention to material agency, in particular, offers us a possibility to understand why telephone accounting practices are not followed in a straightforward manner but can be understood, rather, as “programs” and “anti-programs,” within which telephones and their users express and negotiate differing and sometimes conflicting ideas about how to perform telephony.[1] In an early text, Bruno Latour illustrates this dynamic by means of an example describing how verbal statements, signs, and lastly cumbersome weights were introduced by a hotel manager to ensure that his “program” (returning hotel room keys) was followed: 


The number of loads that one needs to attach to the statement [return keys, MSA] depends on the customers’ resistance, their carelessness, their savagery, and their mood. It also depends on how badly the hotel manager wants to control his customers. And finally, it depends on the cleverness of the customers. The programs of the speaker get more complicated as they respond to the anti-programs of the listeners. (Latour 1991: 105)


In home telephony, as with hotel keys, these programs and anti-programs do not rely primarily on social interactions but are dependent on socio-material assemblages of chairs, doors, and other furnishing. I argue that these nonhumans make up the “missing masses” (Latour 1992) that uphold the morality of telephoning.[2] According to Latour, sociologists look for these missing masses in the social realm: links that are sturdy enough to explain why societies are held together, or moral laws rigid enough to make us behave properly, thereby overlooking the roles played by nonhumans. Similarly, nonhumans are the ones upholding the “values, duties, and ethics” (Latour 1992: 157) that shape how the landline telephone is used. 


In the following, I focus on three interrelated aspects of the landline telephone as a “place-dependent” technology: First, I consider the implications of the landline as a sounded situated technology, as telephones and telephoning demarcate acoustic territories in domestic space. Second, I discuss the landline telephone as a shared sounded situated technology and how issues of ownership were intensified by the landline telephone’s attachment to a household rather than an individual. Finally, I consider how the landline telephone is an assembled shared sounded situated technology, as the technology exists as irreducible from its surroundings – an assemblage of furniture, home layout, and the practices that these are a part of. I also aim to critically question the dichotomy between mobile and immobile phone technologies’ by emphasizing how the apparent immobility of the landline telephone is continuously destabilized by the practices of its users and its own assembled materiality.