The Morality of the Landline Phone


As described earlier, the placement of the telephone becomes instrumental in exerting control over what is said with it. In this consideration of “place-dependency” in sound technologies, I will focus on the implications of the fact that, simply put, it is impossible to separate the home and the landline telephone. In addition, the phone’s placement in the home – including the surrounding layout, functionality, and furnishing – all become characteristics of the phone itself.


While no systematic empirical studies of common placements of telephones exist, in homes built before universal telephone ownership (i.e., most of the Western world before the 1960s) telephone outlets were often placed in the hallway (Wistoft 2007). However, as the twentieth century progressed, so did the availability of the telephone. This was described by a publication on the early social history of the telephone in Denmark:


The telephone was spreading, physically and socially. In many places, it had moved from entryways and front offices to living rooms and offices, from upper class businesses into those of the petit bourgeoisie. (Wistoft 2007: 127, my translation)


The typical placement of the landline telephone is clearly tied to technical and infrastructural limitations, such as a lack of pre-existing telephone outlets, but it is also a material translation of the morality of its use, i.e. the “values, duties and ethics” of telephoning (Latour 1992:157). As indicated, the telephone’s placement in relation to individual family members’ rooms is significant (especially for older children who might spend more time in their room), as a call will often be answered by the person closest to the telephone. Placement in the middle of the home offers access for all family members, while the most common placement in shared areas such as the living room means that most conversations on the phone will be overheard by others. 


When a telephone is placed in a common area, its users are disciplined to talk in a manner that is suitable for all possible listeners, encoding in the living room telephone the prescription that intimate or private conversations are not suitable for telephony. Such a panoptic – or, better, panauditory – functioning has as its major effect a self-disciplining working similar to that analyzed by Foucault in his analysis of Bentham’s prison principle (1995). Obviously, in the case of telephony it is an auditory rather than a visual surveillance, which leads to self-censoring: what is said on the phone should be appropriate for overhearing by all inhabitants of the household at any time. 


Rather than staying with the social as a control mechanism in the use of immobile auditory technologies, however, I want to emphasize how telephonic place-dependency must be understood as socio-technical, an interwoven social and technical matter. We may consider, for instance, the simple importance of the immediate surroundings of the telephone: a place to sit near the telephone will make long calls more comfortable, while a window gives the user a view while talking and a notepad enables messages.

As an example, when I interviewed Steen about his life with the landline telephone, he described how, in his childhood home in the 1970s, the telephone (an Ericsson F68 rotary phone) had a period-typical placement in the living room, on a credenza, next to a chair. At some point, however, the chair was removed from its spot next to the telephone:


Steen: There was a chair to begin with, but because my mom thought she was getting too high telephone bills, she removed the chair with the theory that you wouldn’t want to stand up and talk for so long. Possibly it had an effect; we never found out, but she did remove the chair.


Steen was one of three brothers, and they lived alone with their mother. Based on their substantial telephone bill, his mother figured that when she was at work or running errands her boys ignored her instructions to keep off the telephone. Steen’s mother’s “program” of limited telephone use was met by her children’s “anti-program,” which was to simply ignore her rule when she was absent. She therefore enlisted the help of the phone’s immediate surroundings, lending material strength to her verbal statement that the phone should be used sparingly. 

As Steen indicates, he never found out if the removal of the chair influenced the telephone bill. I have reason to speculate that it did not, because a third “load” added to his mother’s program was the use of a small padlock on the dial of the rotary phone, inserted in the finger hole for “1” and locked when she was out of the home. Steen described how, when the lock was mounted, as soon as you started turning the rotary dial, the lock would hit the finger stop (the metal arm on the bottom of the dial), preventing the user from dialing a number. Thus, Steen’s mother increasingly relied on the “missing masses” (Latour 1992) of chairs, locks, and other home furnishings to determine how their landline telephone was used. This demonstrates how the landline telephone is less a solitary technology that can be studied in itself, but instead calls for a comprehensive analysis of home soundscapes, layouts, furnishing, and use. 


If we think back to Latour’s assertion that the number of loads one needs to attach to a statement depends on “the customers’ resistance, their carelessness, their savagery and their mood,” the small example of Steen’s childhood rotary phone is interesting for the considerable resistance and cleverness – and perhaps also savagery – of its characters. While enlisting the padlock was a significant deterrent within Steen’s mother’s program, it was not enough to stop a final anti-program from her children, which was to forego use of the rotary dial entirely and call the central using pulse signaling:


Steen: My big brother discovered that if you lift the receiver and press one-two [Steen presses the telephone’s hook] you send impulses to the central, that is a two, and one-two-three is a three. And zero? Well, that is the big question: you do that by pressing ten times [...]. And then there was my mother; her hair was turning grey because the bill was just as large even though she had put a lock on it.


What is most striking in Steen’s story is how it illustrates that, while landline telephones are assemblages that express the morality of their use, even the most complicated programs can be negotiated or overturned with an extensive anti-program if its users are tenacious enough. In Steen’s childhood home, the telephone was part of an intricate program designed to teach specific rules about telephone usage – such as “the phone is to be used sparingly” and “the phone is not to be used without an adult home” (both are examples of rules mentioned by participants) – but with dedicated effort, those prescriptions could also be rejected. 


In most cases, telephonic place-dependency does not involve complicated programs; as mentioned in the beginning of this section, more straightforward programs exist, such as the living room phone’s indication that talk on the telephone should be suitable for others to overhear. In these cases, place-dependency is often negotiated as well, as telephone users utilize other outlets (as exemplified by Sandra’s secret phone and Peter’s maid’s displacement of the phone) or draw coiled telephone cords from shared spaces to private nooks. This was the case for Rosa (born 1976), whose childhood telephone had a long, coiled cord that could be stretched from the kitchen to the utility room, where the hum of machines afforded a degree of auditory privacy for more sensitive conversations about who had kissed who at the last party:


Rosa: It was sometimes a bit dangerous to sit and talk even though you were in the utility room and the washing machine was making all the noise it could, um, and I had the sense that this, well, we are doomed if we are overhead [laughs] […]. There was clearly something symbolic about going out into the utility room and shutting the door that, um, my – what is out here has nothing to do with you; it is a kind of disengagement [grabs the cord of the landline telephone]. I don’t know if this might actually be a bit symbolic?

Interviewer: Yes, an umbilical cord to the living room?

Rosa: Yes.


Rosa’s description of enacting a disengagement through the removal of the telephone from a shared space – while being uncertain of her privacy and aware of the physical cord connecting her to her family in the next room – quite succinctly captures the difficulties many users experienced when attempting to re-program the prescriptions encoded in the landline telephone. 

Although later versions of telephones were free from physical cords, ostensible telephonic mobility has not meant that young telephone users today are freed from parental expectations or other expressions of telephone morality. Indeed, the same figure of the umbilical cord linking the teenager to their parents through the phone also appears in studies on mobile telephony, where flat-rate pricing structures means that parents expect daily contact regardless of distance to their children (Ling 2007).

Ericsson F68 telephone used during interviews for this study