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Is the Medium the message? Touch-Tones(TM) on the iPhone say no, at least not yet.

No. The medium can influence the message, but only after people die.

Mimesis: the tendency of new forms of information to mimic old forms of information.
Then, as the oldsters die off, the medium takes over.

I'm taking a fascinating class at Stanford Continuing Studies: "The History of Information" (Beyond Bits and Bytes) taught by Thomas S. Mullaney (Professor of History.)

Professor Mullaney is teaching us about how information is put "in formation" by different technologies. How those technologies govern how the information is transformed ("transformation") and how it starts out always the same, but eventually the medium wins out and takes over what can be done. The Gutenberg bible looks like it was written by a scribe. Why is that?

Tonight's lecture was particularly interesting. And one concept was a real shock to me. I've read Marshall Mcluhan's book: "The Medium is the Message" (a really fun book) but never really got the point. Tonight I believe I finally understood what Marshall was blathering about.  It only took one picture to explain it to me.  Professor Mullaney put up a picture of the original iPhone dial screen and asked "Why do the keys send out Touch-Tones? They are obviously worthless in terms of an actual telephone call, and they have no current practical use except to annoy you - how do you turn them off?"

Wow. It really hit me. Apple, the experts at user interface, had just mimicked the last generation desk phone technology into a device that had no need for it, no desire for it, actually diminished the usefulness of the device. Why? Why would Apple do this? Is it because they want the experience to be as unchanged as possible, to be as 'comfortable' as possible to those users who owned the previous technology? It must be so, as there is no other reason to annoy everyone else without some payoff.

A long time ago, these beeps, boops and Touch-Tones signals actually were functional. They did things when sent over the phone system. Ever hear about a "blue box"? Or Captain Crunch? If not, get ready for a Silicon Valley adventure story that has been repeated over the centuries. The more things change, the more they stay the same.

First, it will be educational to learn about the evolution of the phone system. When Alexander Graham Bell (yes, the Bell system is named after a real person) first invented the phone it was a point to point system, like the tin can and string system you played with as a kid. One phone on each end of the system. Your phone talked to the one on the other end. In the1890s this is how phones worked. You had two phones connected to each other and nowhere else. Manhattan became a nest of wires, executives had phone banks near their desks, one to the factory floor, one to their lawyers, one to their largest supplier. This would never work as the system tried to scale. one phone for everyone you ever wanted to call! But...

Alexander was a very smart man

And he saw a simple way around this: he invented the switch board. Your phone was connected to the switch board. So was your phone on the factory floor. So was your lawyer's phone, so was your supplier's phone. If you wanted to call any of them you would pick up your phone and an operator would answer. So everyone's phone was connected to one other phone: the operators. But... the operator had a set of plugs in front of her that all the other phones were connected to. So you could tell her who you wanted to talk to (It was almost always a her, in fact, my mother-in-law worked as an operator for many years! And she's now happily retired with the couple of shares of stock she got as bonuses...) The operator would unplug the phone line going to your phone from her phone and plug the phone line into the person's phone line that you wanted to talk to. Voila! All the wires go to a central place and a human routes the calls in real time. So instead of having a phone for everyone you wanted to talk to (which scales as the number of phones squared - a thousand phones, a million wires) you had one wire going to a central place and the connection was physically made by an operator to whichever phone you wanted to talk to. Now it scales linearly with the number of phones.

Wall phone, operator required!
See the wall phone over there? Notice, no dial. You just turned the crank to notify the operator, spoke into the horn on the top and listened by the horn on the side. Simple. When you turned the crank it would connect then disconnect the line to the operator. This line had a voltage over it, so when it connected it turned on a light at the operator's switch so she could tell who was calling. It would flash, as turning the crank connected, then disconnected the light.

Okay, it was actually a little bit more complicated than that. The operator really couldn't plug the phones lines directly into each other, there were tens of thousands of phones in Manhattan. She would actually have to make several plugs and rewire the system in real time, this was the only way they could get it to scale. A few years later there were hundreds of thousands of phones in Manhattan. Even though this is now scaling linearly with the phones it's not going to work, there aren't enough people to manually reroute the connections on every call.

Somehow, Bell needed to get rid of the operators or his business was going to fail. And again, he was a very smart man. He assigned a number to each phone. Four digits. You could have 9999 phones hooked together through a switch system. Each group of phones had three digits to identify its group. So you could have 999 groups of phones (although some of the numbers were reserved.) This means he could now support about ten million phones and every one had a unique number. Yes, the telephone number was invented. The operators got a call, you told them which number you were calling and they set the switches to route the phone call correctly. But wait, Alexander still needed all those operators! But again, Bell was a very smart man.

The operator flipped the switches to match the phone number you wanted to call... what if  your phone could do that all by itself? Then there would be no need for operators. That's exactly what he did. He made the phone capable of sending a signal through the wires that would flip the right switches to connect your phone up to any other of the ten million phones. How did he do that? Well if you've ever watched an old movie you see that phones used to have dials on them (that's why we call making a phone call "dialing".)  The dial was a rotary switch.

Unlike the crank the numbers on the dial told you how many times the switch would be turned on and off when you moved it all the way clockwise and let it go. Put your finger in the five hole and rotate the dial clockwise to the stop and let it go. It would connect and disconnect five times as the dial returned to its original position. So it would flash the light at the operator's switch five times. Who cares? Nobody! But....

Alexander was a very smart man.

Instead of using that signal to flash the light five times he made that signal turn another rotary switch five places. That switch now connected your phone to the fifth wire connected to that switch. Then the next number you dialed would change the next switch! And so on and so forth. If you wanted to talk to a phone in your local group,  you only needed to dial four numbers. And voila, you start ringing the phone at the other end. Now if you wanted to talk to another group of phones you could continue dialing the next three numbers and three more wires would switch and connect and all of a sudden you're talking to another phone in another group, automatically, no need for operators, you only need big buildings with big physical switches in them.

This system has been expanded to nine numbers in the US. We add the area code to the groups of switches and now you can hook up ten billion phones. Another consequence of this system is that you didn't have to use the rotary dial to dial the number, you could just press the switch that connected you with the system the right number of times to dial the number you wanted. 0 was the hardest number to dial as it was really ten connect-disconnect cycles. And you had to do it within about a second or the switch at the other end ignored you. But it was possible. It was a quirk of the system and you could hack it to dial any number you wanted.

A quick digression. How do you call a phone in another country? Well you just add a country number onto the phone number. That's why the country number for the United States is "1". We invented the phone system so we got to set up the naming. We're number one!

What a great design! But there's still some problems in the system. These switches are big. Typically they are thirty or fourty feet tall so they need a lot of building space. When you see the phone company building without any windows, that used to be just a big shell around a bunch of switches. If the phone system actually grew to ten billion phones that'd take a billion switches. There weren't enough buildings to hold all those switches and all that wire. But...

Alexander was a very smart man.

But... by now, it's the late 1950s and Alexsander is dead, so he can't fix the system. But he's invented the largest research laboratory in the world and he's got a lot of smart people working on this problem. What do they do? Did they invent the iPhone? Nope. If they had we would have gotten a picture of a rotary dial instead of the push buttons. And it would be going dit-dit-dit-dit... not beep, boop, bop. Instead they invented the "Touch-Tone" system. Instead of letting the voltage - ground - voltage move the switch, they now had a little electronic circuit that listened on the phone line for the Touch-Tone sounds. When it heard the sound for a "1" the electronic circuit turned the switch and connected up the first wire. Then when you pressed the next number and it did the same thing again. They originally used this system to connect up the groups of phones with each other. They thought they were being very clever as the signals are in the audible range and thus can be transmitted over any of the phone lines already in existence. No need for new wires anywhere! But...

They started using these tones on pay phones - the system in the switch could hear the tones that the quarter set off when you shoved it into the phone's pay slot. But it's just a tone in the audible range. So you don't need to put a quarter in the phone, you can just replay the sounds the quarter triggered when you shoved it into the pay phone slot. So with a little tone generator you could get free phone calls. Even better, they had special tones (that they published!) that would let you dial long distance phone numbers and pay for them. No need for collect calls with the tone generator (the "blue box") you could call anywhere for free.

Another quick digression. We're all the way up to the 1970s now and bright electronic students (even those in high school, like the esteemed Steve Wozniak) could figure out how to build these tone generators. One of the tones was actually able to be generated by the plastic whistle that was a prize from a box of Cap'n Crunch cereal, hence the nickname of John Draper (an early phone phreaker.)  You could sell these blue boxes, which cost a few dollars to make, for a hundred dollars because people could use it to steal long distance phone calls from the phone company. Stealing is a harsh term. It's not like the phone system noticed that one person made a free phone call and it would break the system! It wasn't even a real annoyance. The phone company didn't care. And some blue box builders made enough money to buy parts to build a personal computer. One hack finances another.

At this point Cap'n Crunch is actually working at Apple. He's building a blue box that can be controlled by an Apple computer. But the corporate side of the Wozniak/Jobs dynamic duo gets wind of it (the corporate one wasn't Woz, if you didn't know) and shuts it down. You can't have everyone who buys an Apple computer making free calls! What would this world come to? So Steve fires Draper, even though that's why he hired him in the first place. A real dick move. And not the only one the Dick, er Steve ever made, but that's for another blog post...

Back to our story about the iPhone's crappy 'dialer' interface. Again, it's not a dial, it's actually a Touch-Tone interface with simulated push buttons like the modern phones. By the 1980's the phone company figured out that putting their signalling in the audio band is a bad idea so they invented the Signaling System Seven.  ("SS7" for short. I was never sure what the other six generations of signalling were, we've only described four in this article. I doubt there were seven. There were probably way more.) So at this point in time the globally open in-band signalling system no longer works. You can't get free long distance calls by blowing a Cap'n Crunch whistle into a phone anymore. But you can still talk to the local switch using the Touch-Tones. Beep-boop-bop. All the new phones do it.

So what happens when they invent the cell phone? They don't use the Touch-Tones at all to dial, but you can do all kinds of neat things with Touch-Tones. "Press 1 for a representative." The cell phone produces a Touch-Tone signal that you can hear, then sends an electronic signal across the radio waves to the switch on the other side which recreates the actual Touch-Tone signal so the representative on the other side can ignore you for minutes at a time. The Touch-Tone signal itself is never sent over the phone lines on your end, but we still hear it. We're mimicking the original system that no longer exists! Mimesis. That's why you're iPhone still does it. Beep-boop-bop. We've been trained to expect the tones, so they gives us the tones.

When will we ever get rid of this anachronism? Who knows? With this new system there's no need for Touch-Tones, but we still have them. Maybe after the original designers die off, we'll forget to put them in the next version of the iPhone.... so it won't beep-boop- bop in your ear when you press the buttons. The new Media doesn't need the old messages.

Thanks for reading.

Quick aside. When I turn the page on an electronic book it pretends to simulate the turning of the page of a real book in three dimensions. Talk about your anachronistic medium is not the message but copying what went before is, that's the ultimate baloney interface hack.

Oh, what a tangled web we weave,
When first we practise to deceive!


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