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Switchboard: losing your voice

By Sarah Jackson, senior lecturer in English and Creative Writing at Nottingham Trent University

In this post Sarah Jackson talks about her three Being Human events looking at the impact telephones have had on our human interactions. What difference does talking down the line make to how we communicate?

In 1877, The Times reported: ‘A time is coming when everybody, we presume, will carry his own Telephone about with him'. Now, over a century later, there are more telephones in the world than people. For some, the phone is a lifeline; the vital role of mobile connectivity for refugees and migrants, for instance, has been widely documented.

But for others, the loss of face-to-face contact, the huge environmental impact, and increasing reports of ‘nomophobia’ (or ‘no-mobile-phone-phobia’ where symptoms include ringing ears and phantom vibrations), mean that – as Mark Twain told telephone engineers in 1877 – ‘if Bell had invented a muffler or a gag, he would have done us a real service'. But despite our increasing preoccupation with the benefits and dangers of the smartphone, our understanding of the aesthetics of telephony remain neglected.

Working with the BT Archives and the Science Museum, my research currently focuses on the ways that the telephone has been conceived by writers from the nineteenth century to the present day. How has the telephone – from Bell’s needle vibrating in water to the iPhone X – changed the ways that we read and write? In particular, I’m interested in the telephone’s capacity to destabilise relations of presence and absence in art and literature; this means thinking about interruption and disconnection as well as communication and contact. What happens, for example, when calls are intercepted or when meaning goes astray? What kinds of voices and what kinds of messages get lost and found down the line? As G. K. Chesterton once remarked, ‘There is only one way of getting through on the telephone: but there are an infinite number of ways of not getting through’.

Reflecting on the telephone in A Lover’s Discourse (1979), the French philosopher Roland Barthes highlights the disruptive capacity of electric speech, suggesting that ‘the telephone is always a cacophony, and that what it transmits is the wrong voice’. Certainly, the power of the telephone to challenge our understanding of what it means to communicate recurs with uncanny frequency in books and films, where calling someone up often means crossing the wires or talking to the dead.

Exploring the different voices that have been lost or found down the line, 'Switchboard' is a three-part series of events for Being Human 2017 exploring the cultural legacy of the telephone. 'Switchboard I', the first event in the series, is a workshop at Nottingham Industrial Museum on 19 November that will inspire and support writers of all levels in the production of new creative work. Building on Nottingham’s own telephonic history, participants will have the chance to try their hand on the old exchange, reminisce over the Mickey Mouse character phone, or listen out for ghostly voices down the wires as they develop and share new writing inspired by the telephone and its many voices.

The second event of the series, 'Switchboard II', will take place on 21 November in a telephone box next to ‘Dialling In’, a phone-booth cafe in Nottingham, reported to be the smallest coffee shop in the United Kingdom. Members of the public will be invited to enter the phone box to leave their own messages on our answer-machine, reflecting on the significance of the telephone in their lives or imagining calls yet to be made.

Selected extracts from these recordings will be used with the authors’ permission during the third event of the series, 'Switchboard III', a live literary event on 23 November at ‘Wired’ cafe in Nottingham where we will celebrate the aesthetics of the phone through poetry and music.