Raising the Dial Tone

About 2,000 years ago, the way to communicate across distance - if you had means - was to employ a human messenger.  Lacking that, you may use smoke or fire relays to communicate along specific "lines of communication." About 100 years ago, the rule in pre-WWII U.S. (for residential use) was party lines, nicely captured in this article.  very-old-phoneThe phone in this image was designed by someone who never considered that a user would need or be able to "dial their own number."  Instead, you would pick up a phone and hear a voice.

Following WWII trunk lines, switches, and accepted protocols for area codes eliminated the need for operators to complete a call: their whose job became more sophisticated than just manually making connections (disclaimer:  both my mother and grandmother worked as telephone operators in pre-war Manhattan). The user interface disappeared and the professionals evolved.

Their job was replaced by a dial tone and phones that let you enter your own numbers. The numbers were nationally translatable such that you could theoretically dial any phone on the country. You still needed an operator for overseas calls, but eventually even this requirement disappeared as other countries signed onto protocols and became accessible.

Why is the state of today's dial tone? Where do we still need human assistance to connect? Is the assistance available?  How often do we give up, failing to reach our party?

Last week the Bride tried her hand at buying health insurance online and came away a little older. We wanted to use AARP, as they resold an Aetna product.  She signed in to AARP, authenticated there and was sent to an Aetna link. At this link, we find that our Google Chrome  browser is not supported.

And here is where our dial tone broke. 

She opened a different browser and pasted the current link. The problem, we've lost the 'breadcrumb' and now Aetna thinks we're coming directly to them. No discount from AARP. Worse, she has now 'created' her account - not associated with AARP -  and cannot undo this without speaking to an Aetna representative.

We appear to live in a "thin client" world, but in fact this presumes we all have browsers that are supported, broadband access, Adobe products, (sorry, iPhone users), etc.

Our interface today continues to confound, even as we extend the form and nature of our interactions. It's as if we were sold a new "phone" every year or so, warned that the previous model would somehow let robbers into our homes - except they now steal our very identities rather than our jewelry.  


Each new "phone" would have new features for richer connections, but mysteriously wouldn't connect us to certain numbers.

As we add browsers, Macromedia, QuickTime, Windows Media, and update each  based on vendor production schedules and security breaches - are we making more or less difficult to establish a global dial tone?

Are we converging or diverging?  Perhaps both at once - at least it can seem that way.  As our browser experience becomes more complex, our sharing of fragments - our chatter - becomes simpler.

This is what social media means to me. It raises the dial tone. I can reach/search/listen to a global conversation. People can engage using their cell phones, any browser, a myriad of apps designed against an open API, etc.

As of this writing, Twitter has achieved a party line for millions. Someone asked yesterday "does anyone know the username for the owners of Twitter?" others chimed in immediately to offer assistance, and it became obvious to me that no operator is needed to help us connect using this particular dial tone.