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How the Lowly Answering Machine Contributed to our Anxiety-Ridden Culture of Continuous Communication

Josh Lauer is a 2019 Digital Studies Fellow at the John W. Kluge Center as well as Associate Professor of Communication at the University of New Hampshire. His research interests include the history of communication technologies as well as consumer credit reporting, the topic of his 2017 book “Creditworthy: A History of Consumer Surveillance and Financial Identity in America.”

 

Telephone answering machine, Phone-Mate 400. Credit: Smithsonian National Museum of American History

Why the history of answering machines?

If one were to survey the most influential communication technologies of the late twentieth century, the answering machine probably wouldn’t come to mind. Compared to computers, the internet, and mobile phones, the answering machine seems especially low-tech and banal. Yet this relatively simple household device reshaped communication norms in important ways. Above all, answering machines made it possible to be continuously available. This certainly made telephone calling more convenient, but it also introduced new social burdens. It was no longer possible to ignore or dodge incoming calls. Messages could arrive at any hour and, given the certainty of their delivery, each recorded message represented a demand on one’s time and attention.

Though the dilemma of perpetual connection is usually blamed on internet-connected devices that tether us to the world, household answering machines played a role in habituating Americans to these expectations during the 1970s and 1980s. Even more, answering machines introduced new forms of social surveillance, especially through the practice of call screening, and new modes of mediated self-presentation in personalized outgoing messages. Taken together, the history of the household answering machine offers surprising insight into how Americans grappled with new pressures to be continuously available, to negotiate their privacy, and to perform for unseen media audiences. If these issues seem familiar, that’s because they are. These problems are central to twenty-first-century digital life.

 

What does this history say about the social impacts of emerging communication technologies?

Silicon Valley gurus from Steve Jobs to Mark Zuckerberg have insisted that faster, more pervasive and increasingly seamless communication technologies enrich our lives, but the reality is more complicated. A world of ubiquitous communication, it turns out, can be oppressive. Being instantly reachable via text, email, direct message, or call means that one is never fully free of the obligation to respond. If cable television ushered in the 24/7 news cycle during the 1980s, internet-connected mobile devices seem to have done something similar with personal communication during the early 2000s. Worse still, as more of social life has migrated to digital media, opting out is increasingly difficult. There is immense social and professional pressure to be continuously connected. Those who refuse to participate pay a real price.

The history of the answering machine illustrates how this kind of “communication creep” occurs. The earliest telephone answering devices date to around 1900, and they were primarily intended as an aid for busy professionals and business owners – doctors and dry cleaners, for example. These were very specific contexts, mostly involving emergencies and commerce. When answering machines were eventually marketed to consumers during the 1970s and 1980s, however, this context was generalized. Soon everyone was expected to be “on call.” This might seem like a small thing, but it signaled a shift in the way that Americans understood the telephone’s function and their own accessibility. By the mid-1990s, nearly three-quarters of US households had answering machines. Those without answering machines, or who refused to leave messages because they hated “talking to the machine,” missed out on social and professional opportunities.

 

What does this history suggest about the future of technological change, particularly the future of communication technologies?

One of the most striking aspects of the household answering machine is the range of unintended uses it facilitated. Beyond creating a world in which continuous telephone availability was expected, answering machines became a kind of proto-social media platform. They allowed users to surveil others, including friends and family, through call screening. They allowed users to express their unique personalities through customized outgoing messages. And their blinking lights and message count features represented a form of social metric that registered one’s popularity. Without answering machines, you never knew if anyone called while you were away. With them, you knew exactly how many calls you received, including the fact that no one called!

These secondary functions, none of which motivated the technology’s original development, are important because they illustrate how technology is shaped by users and how, in turn, these uses can shape new social norms. It also illustrates the unpredictability of technological development. We are accustomed to viewing the history of communication technology as a story of forward progress and improvement. Yet progress – especially progress measured in terms of speed or efficiency – is quite deceptive. Faster, effortless communication can be socially corrosive. Even the lowly answering machine, bought as a household convenience, contributed to our anxiety-ridden culture of continuous media presence and self-conscious media performance.

 

What Library resources aided you the most in your research?

Since my study is concerned with cultural reactions to the answering machine, rather than its technical development, I focused my attention on press accounts in US newspapers and magazines during the 1970s and 1980s. The Library’s extensive periodical collections were invaluable for this purpose. This project also builds on grant-funded research I conducted over several years at the Smithsonian’s Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention and Innovation.

 

How can we learn more about your work, follow your work in this area?

This study is part of a larger book project on the cultural history of the telephone in the United States. The book project is ongoing, but I plan to publish my account of the household answering machine in an academic journal. A draft version is available at my university webpage.

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