Surveying Wired Landscapes: Early Telephone Directories & Mobile Perception
by Emily Goodmann — Northwestern University
February 16, 2010 – 00:10
Mobility is a complex term not easily untangled from its association with contemporary communication technologies or cultural conceptions of space and spatial practices. For those of us with an interest in its historical meaning(s), however, we might interrogate earlier media that afforded similar conceptual freedoms of movement across geographic, social, economic, and technological spaces; in this case, the telephone directory. The associated slides aim to furnish a sense for early directories as well as the geographical metaphors used in its advertising to the public. The more textual of these slides suggest the ways in which users approached and interacted with the directory.
The Chicago telephone directory, an early prototype, was distributed to incentivize telephone subscriptions and assuage calls to the operator. In practice, however, it was a survey tool for its users. Through the directory’s use by subscribers and residents, individuals mapped new pathways for understanding and acclimating themselves to urban life at-large. The directory-surfing mobile telephony enthusiast of today echoes the directory users years ago who extolled telephone directories as "intensely interesting and absorbing" (Nelly Gordon, "The Story of Chicago," 1912).
The telephone directory facilitated different kinds of participation in local geography. Users’ interactions with its data content and structure found not just a manual for the telephone, but a guide toward fuller realization of Chicago’s very parochial intricacies. As the textual slides suggest, directories did not simply encourage a plea for the locatedness of place (as if it has somehow been lost in the shuffle of urbanization). Rather, they signal the use of the directory as a mediator of local geographies of the city. Modern Chicago citizens quelled anxieties of spatial annihilation by flipping through the directory’s pages, pouring over maps, and absorbing numerous classified ads. The ‘enchantment’ of the directory, illustrated by the slide containing the poem, was found in its ability to communicate the places, spaces, and potential relationships in the heart of a growing metropolis. The sensational prose suggests that the directory user not only referenced, but read the telephonic guide as a means to experience greater familiarity with the landscape in which they were a small part.
The narrative function of the telephone directory, its users gleaning from its pages a mental map of the city, allowed directory users to engage in spatial practices that constructed the lived space of modern, wired Chicagoans. The conceptual freedom of movement within Chicago afforded by the telephone directory may be explored not as taking place in Chicago—but rather as a living or embodied city itself intertwined in and resulting from spatial practices, material relations, bodies, movement, and tactical trajectories mediated via the directory’s text-cum-screen.
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