Who stole my POTS? (plain old telephone service)
As my legions of loyal readers know, my interest in telephones and their power for good or ill has its roots in childhood experiences: the revelation that a telephone would “work” if you spoke any language into it, not just English, and the fact that one five-minute call could ruin a family’s entire Christmas (my brother’s call to our mother that the Marines were sending him to Korea).
This interest was sustained during a 25-year career with a Cambridge consulting firm, including a number of years spent clearing a legal and regulatory path for creating new, state-of-the-art land line configurations—now of course all consigned to the dust-bin of history.
Still, there were some fond memories, such as the introduction of email to a LAN (local area network) of managers and staff in the U.S. Treasury Department. Like children with a new toy, they would spend the better part of a week exchanging emails to determine the absolutely most optimal time to schedule a meeting.
And then, of course, the Secret Service! Originally formed by Treasury to prevent counterfeiting, and today part of Homeland Security, it got into the presidential protection business more or less by accident. Since Treasury was next door to the White House, it made sense on some level. But every telecom feature prized by conventional Treasury was anathema to the Service, for whom paranoia and suspicion are default attitudes. “I Facebook, take thee, CIA, to be my . . .”
I was not an early adopter of cell phones, not because of anti-technology prejudice, but because I just didn’t see any pressing need. It took a classic Carlisle multi-day power outage for me to see the, um, light.
Our house phone, being cordless, was as useless as every other electrical appliance. But my wife had a cell, and when her power ran low we took it to smug little Concord with its own power company and recharged it in a restaurant there.
I’ve embraced smart-phone technology now and couldn’t do without it, but I refuse to heap scorn on life in the landline era. Set aside the issue of mobility for a moment, and consider the phone picture of 25 years ago. When you came home, you checked the messages left by family, friends and legitimate businesses that your blinking light told you were waiting. At home, when a call came in, you saw who it was and either answered it or let it go to message. (Again, apart from mobility, pretty much what you do with your smart phone today.)
Here’s my beef: a perfectly good means of communication developed over 150 years was hijacked by greedy telemarketers, who ruined it for everybody else as well as themselves. From Gresham’s Law in economics we learned that, where there’s a dollar gold coin and a paper dollar bill, people will hoard the former and spend the latter. “Bad money drives out good.” It also explains why there are so many more junk food outlets than fine restaurants.
Call me a soft-headed optimist if you like, but with this sad example in front of us, surely we won’t let something similar happen to email . . . will we?