"Hello, Central?" Gender, Technology and Culture in the Formation of Telephone Systems

Description

219 pages
Contains Photos, Bibliography, Index
$34.95
ISBN 0-7735-0830-9
DDC 384.6'082

Year

1991

Contributor

Reviewed by Paul G. Thomas

Paul G. Thomas is a political science professor at the University of
Manitoba.

Review

No one should mistake this book for a popular history of the telephone
industry. Although it does provide fascinating details and pictures
about the early days of telephone service in Ontario and Quebec (from
1878 to 1920), it is really a serious scholarly analysis of how the
introduction of new technology is influenced by the economic, political,
and social structure. Not all the language or the argument will be
comfortable for all readers, but the book offers some wonderful insights
into the history of telephones, and the author argues her case
persuasively based on original documents from the archives of Bell
Canada. Her argument is that the development and social uses of
telephones were not dictated by technology, but instead reflected class
and gender relationships within society. After briefly describing the
early telephone technology, the author shows how Bell Canada maneuvered
into a monopoly position, partly by its predatory habits of “killing
off” (the words of a Bell document) its potential competitors. With
maximum profits as its goal, Bell targeted the early promotion of
telephones almost exclusively to urban businessmen and ignored the
social needs of rural areas, lower-income groups, and women. However,
these groups did not acquiesce silently to Bell’s grand design.
Instead, they insisted on the treatment of Bell as a public utility,
subject to government regulation to prevent price-gouging and to ensure
more equitable service. But more interesting is the account of the
resistance to Bell’s bottom-line logic by women in their roles as
operators and as customers. Originally, the operator population was
exclusively male. The “feminization” of the occupation, which began
in the 1880s, reflected the fact that under the prevailing strict
Victorian social order women represented the ideal labour force:
submissive, respectful, discrete, and cheap. Women remained subordinate
in the workplace, but through informal practices in their daily work
routines they offset to some degree the authoritarian management
practices and gave their jobs some respectability. The evidence on this
point is not entirely convincing, since up to the present operator
services have remained strictly regimented and closely supervised by
telephone companies. As customers, women were successful in diverting
telephone service from its exclusively economic goal of increasing the
circulation of capital to the social goal of permitting greater contact
and interaction among women who were mainly at home. Women helped shape
a culture of the telephone, which the author describes in an interesting
fashion. General readers who make it through a few dense passages of
social science jargon will find this book both informative and
entertaining. Academics will find the analysis of the interaction of
technology with the social order original and challenging.

Citation

Martin, Michèle., “"Hello, Central?" Gender, Technology and Culture in the Formation of Telephone Systems,” Canadian Book Review Annual Online, accessed July 13, 2024, https://cbra.library.utoronto.ca/items/show/11314.