Greg Beato on how the seemingly humble phone book “signaled the coming shift from an industrial economy to an information-based one”.
The phone itself was a pretty big deal, of course, helping intimacy transcend proximity. But phone books provided a crucial element to the system: intrusiveness. In the beginning of 1880, Shea writes, there were 30,000 telephone subscribers in the U.S. At the end of the year, that number had grown to 50,000, and because of phone books, each one of them was exposed to the others as never before. While many American cities had been compiling databases of their inhabitants well before the phone was invented, listing names, occupations, and addresses, individuals remained fairly insulated from each other. Contacting someone might require a letter of introduction, a facility for charming butlers or secretaries, a long walk.
Phone books eroded these barriers. They were the first step in our long journey toward the pandemic self-surveillance of Facebook. “Hey strangers!” anyone who appeared in their pages ordained. “Here’s how to reach me whenever you feel like it, even though I have no idea who you are.”