When there was just one phone

Once there was basically just one model of telephone in Sweden, as in many other countries. One single model should fit all environments. They were owned by the telecom authorities. Old phones were recycled. Telephones were infrastructure, like electricity, running water and heating. A fascinating design task, quite different from todays context. In all a very modernistic concept!

The grey 60’s model was soon accompanied by a black and white model. In the late 70’s more colours were added – red, green, yellow. Perhaps this was the beginning of the end of telephone monopoly. The first taste of choice. The notion that a phone can be something more than just a phone.

Something to reflect on today when cell phones are fashion accessories and personality reflectors!

Earlier in the century people would even dress up before making important phone calls from their homes. I still think that the number disc has a certain dignity and decisiveness when you use it. And you can hang up with a slam!

So in the post industrial experience society, which phones actually do fit social behavior? And which are actually recyclable? We don’t want the lightly totalitarian society back, but is your current phone just as evident and reliable?

  1. 2 Comment(s)

  2. By Helena on Mar 21, 2010 | Reply

    If there is a shift going on, I personally believe it has more to do with HOW existing technology is used in a globalised society, and how this influence technique development, than what preferences a small western oriented elite may have.

    I give you an example: When I arrived in Uganda, East Africa, for the first time in 1995, the country relied on the analog telephone system, and telephones were reserved for a miniscule elite. With such limited demand, the system was expensive, old fashioned and unreliable. Businesses and Public Service often relied on one phone per office, and since the one office phone was constantly in use (mostly for private emergency calls) it was virtually impossible to reach people over the phone. It was easier and quicker to seek people up in person, but since you had not made an appointment you were more often than not stuck in a line of visitors in an office other than your own. Hence, the idea of Africa working on “African time”. Every meeting, every communication, took for ever.

    When I returned in year 2000 the mobile phone had entered the Ugandan market. Ordinary people could still not afford a personal mobile, but inventive entrepreneurs started to let their mobiles out by the-call on the streets for a small fee. Suddenly you could hire a phone for just one phone call from any other street-corner in Kampala, and this phenomenon quickly spread throughout the country. Since it became easier to reach people over the phone it became more worthwhile for businessmen to invest in a personal mobile. In a very short time the digital network replaced and exceeded the analog network, and when I came back to Uganda in 2002 almost every village in Uganda possessed at least one mobile. It was seldom of the latest brand, but with a thriving second-hand market for mobile phones, it was a huge and incredible improvement of communication in one of the world’s poorest countries.

    Of course the development of a digital network in Uganda had not been possible without development-aid subsidising telephone operators to expand the mobile net. But it was still cheaper than to expand the analog system, and once the network was in place, the African countries are a reliable market for mobile phones. However, in my mind, the success of the mobile phone in Africa has less to do with the technology, and more to do with ”economic design” (or whatever the term may be?).

    The analog phone system is traditionally based on subscription, which has to be paid in regular intervals. The phone-subscription will cost you, even if you are not using the phone. In an economically volatile environment, when you never know if you are going to have enough money to pay for food from one day to another, this system is untenable. People in general just cannot afford to pay for a service they are not using. Hence, the success of the mobile phone in Africa rests heavily on the pay-as-you-go-card. These plastic cards ( which in a country like Sweden are no longer “cards” but computer fabricated “slips”) can in a country like Uganda easily be distributed and sold in every corner of the country, however isolated and “backwards”.

    In the beginning of the 20th century, most people in European cities relied in a similar pay-as-go system for their household use of electricity, heat and hot water. When people could not afford washing machines at home they could use coin-operated laundrettes. Why these systems has not been adapted and introduced on the African market is beyond me. But it must have to do with a flaw in the design, a flaw that it takes, not an engineer, but a creative and skilled designer to detect and adjust.
    Don’t you agree?

  3. By Olle Torgny on Mar 21, 2010 | Reply

    Yes.

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