I posted a link to this cute Yahoo! story a while back on Mastodon about a small child who basically reinvented the landline. And for what it is, it’s a cute story, but you know a funny thing about small children and their silly ideas? You’re not going to compete with them on creativity. As in, the child is right. Land lines are specifically, situationally useful.
Step into the time machine…
To the days when saying "time machine" meant "ATM." (Side note, "tyme" branded machines were everywhere back in the day, and "tyme" was specifcally an acronym for "Take Your Money Everywhere" for that reason.) Cell phones, well, they existed, but not in the form we know them today. You might have seen a Nokia phone not ironically duct taped to a steel pipe for a meme, and people sometimes had a bag phone for the car because you didn’t need to pay for 911 calls, but they weren’t a thing most people had and they absolutely were large enough in many cases to come built into their own carrying case. The smart phone didn’t exist until 1994 and even then it was considered a PDA that also made calls. PDAs themselves were limited to "corner office" business types until the Palm line brought them more in reach of the masses, specifically the PalmPilot. Frankly, those were the sort who’d had cell phones as early as the ’80s, fancy desk toys like a golden egg you’d pull a string to record a short message on, and any PC that was "portable" by merit of having a handle despite being twice the size and five times the weight of a briefcase. This sort of tech was toys for the rich. Really, just imagine a world where electronics as a whole were expensive, most people didn’t have game consoles, home computers usually resided in the office or maybe den and were extremely optional, and the only phone that left your house stopped working before the sidewalk.
Let’s talk about that phone specifically.
Cordless phones were a thing, very much so, but they were more expensive and the batteries could be finnicky because the options were NiCad and NiMH, both of which could lose capacity if you charged them before they were fully discharged, though NiMH batteries could be fixed with a few full discharge and recharge cycles. Cordless phones weren’t in every home, but they were in enough homes that people didn’t think too much about it seeing one. Ultimately, though, there were a couple caveats. They had to have a cord at some point, two in fact, because they took up an electrical outlet as well as a phone line that went through the ground and up the telephone poles.
Yep, we’re talking about a landline. Land as in "ground" and line as in "wire."
The alternative to a cordless phone was the cheap handheld unit you’d see on many a wall, end table, or specialized cubby or hole in a dividing wall one might still find in an older home. They were in the kitchen, the office, even the bedroom. This didn’t need a power outlet because it operated on an ingenious system using a technology we know as "copper wire," which carries electricity just fine. Specifically, only two of them were required: one for the microphone, and one for the speaker or ringer depending on whether it was hung up or not, with the two ultimately connected through the circuitry of the phone itself that may or may not have done some amount of filtering to keep you from hearing your own voice as loudly, though you could absolutely hear yourself on them, and whoever made the mistake of blowing into one got just as much of an earful as the person or people they were talking to, because it was essentially all one big circle where everyone on the line heard everything, and eavesdropping was as easy as picking up another phone in the house and holding down the mute button. Heck, if you’re ever watching an old movie and someone complains by asking whether it’s a "party line," that’s because a lot of setups, especially rural ones, essentially only had one big circle where everyone shared the same number and people knew who was supposed to pick up by how it rang. These technically still exist today, but rural folk often made the best of it by sharing weather, emergency notices, and train schedules. Don’t think for a second that technology is wasted on rural folk; they made their own phone network over barbed wire fences. If they had the resources to make their own Internet, too, we wouldn’t have had broadband as campaign promises last election season. Basically, barbed wire fence had enough wires to do the job and it’s not like farms haven’t been electrifying them for ages anyway, but as to what’s even required, not a whole lot. Phones originally only had one wire, with the circuit completed by a ground; you shouted into the same receptacle you listened from. If you want to know more about that, well, that’s setting the time machine clock back quite a bit further, but by the early ’90s, you commonly had 4 or even 6 wires because of things like lights behind the phone keys that needed small, but slightly larger than normal amounts of electricity to work that the phone lines were perfectly capable of providing, particularly on the slightly beefier second pair. This makes more sense when you consider the original Princess used an incandescent light. Later LED models work just fine on any wires available. The wires being paired let them be used flexibly for up to 3 lines if you were the fancy sort who had multiple lines or even a connection to a local BBS or, since we already know we’re as far as 1994, that silly distraction called the Internet that’s certainly never going to go anywhere. 😉
At any rate, the cheap handheld unit might legitimately work when the power’s out, because it doesn’t need external power, only the power on the phone line, which meant that if the power station blew in a storm, but nothing took down the poles, you might legitimately be able to still place calls. At the same time, I have had it where during a distant storm, after disconnecting the phone line service, my phone started ringing and let me tell you there is nothing creepier that’s ever happened to me than having a dead phone ringing in the middle of the night as the distant storm starts to blow in. Lightning can strike 10 miles away from the storm and somehow the electrical charge had made it to the wires and into my home, because the line was still good. Being disconnected doesn’t have them send someone out with a big scissors or anything, they just don’t assign routing to your wires in the main bank controlling the routing. There are surge protectors in some power strips and UPSes that might keep you from being zapped by the wrath of God for dishing the latest dirt on Jessica today, but such things were far less common back then and absolutely nobody used them. People just tended not to talk on the phone during storms the same way you generally don’t take a shower in one.
So there were trade-offs. Standard phones were cheap, had nice enough features like lights for dialing in the dark, and offered a sort of redundancy in that if a storm blew out your power, they might still work. There was nothing wrong with them; they could go in any room you cared to wire them to, you could play with the cord as you talked if you were a teenager and a girl and on a sound stage (or otherwise a teenaged male with ADHD who’d run out of pill), and while the cords were stretchy, and could very much get tangled because of it, being attached to the wall meant you always knew where they were, which is a Hell of a lot more than you could say for the average cordless phone (especially if you were a teen with ADHD who had, at some point within the last 24 hours, run out of pill).
Which wasn’t to say that cordless phones didn’t have benefits to take advantage of that wall outlet. The most common was probably the answering machine, and they even had special tiny compact cassette tapes to record messages on, though in practice that just meant less space to record on and that could very quickly bite you in the butt, because more than one person missed out on a job interview because the tape got overwritten and it was enough of a problem that Gargoyles used it in an episode as a plot point. On the plus side, it was easy to use it to screen calls. But there were also benefits with fewer drawbacks like speakerphone, speed dial, and caller ID, provided you paid for the latter. Which brings us to…
The Landline Experience™
Yeah, can you imagine a world where you answered the phone not knowing who was calling? How innocent times must have been? Because phone books were also a thing and the phone company mailed out new ones periodically for updates. You really could just open up a book to a random page and find someone’s name, address, and phone number because you had to pay to be unlisted. But prank calls weren’t the problem the media makes them out to be and in many cases they’re overrepresented because the disc jockeys would do it, along with calling random homes for quizzes for cash prizes and the like. In a world where we were not yet broadcasting our bad takes to the whole world, doxxing was not a real concern for the most part. When you opened a phone book, it was because you were looking for a person or business and 99% of it was totally innocent. It really was a more innocent time.
Caller ID being the expense it was, there were really only a few possibilities when you picked up the phone: 1) it was someone you knew, 2) it was a wrong number, 3) it was a telemarketer, or 4) it was a bill collector, if you had bills overdue. I mean, there were other much more remote possibilities, like the aforementioned radio stations, or a prank call, or Heaven help you, the police or the hospital or something, but chances were if you didn’t have any debt in collection, it was usually someone you wanted to hear from or someone easy enough to get rid of, especially if you simply told the telemarketer to remove you from their list before you said anything else, because legally they had to and couldn’t bother you again. Whack-a-mole, certainly, but if anything there were fewer marketing calls then than there are now and all of them led with an actual human on the other end of the line.
Anyway, chances were whenever you picked up the phone, it wasn’t an axe murderer. Which is more than people can say today if they have an opinion on social media.
And in that bit of the unknown, there was a sense of excitement. Was it the cutie you gave your number calling? A friend making plans for the weekend? An estranged uncle’s estate naming you sole heir to the family fortune if you could sleep a week in a haunted house? WHO KNOWS? Not you, until you picked up the call. Your relationship with your phone was largely dictated by your relationships with the world in general. If you had a ton of debt or legal issues, yeah, your phone was a nightmare, but if you managed to just not have that sort of thing, which was also easier because of payday lending being in its infancy and there just being less inflation and wealth disparity/consolidation, the phone was pretty sweet.
That said, making a call not knowing who was going to pick up, while it sounds scary today, really wasn’t. There was always a chance calling that cutie’s number would end up with you talking to someone really unfortunate, whether it was a less than impressed parent or, if you were really unlucky, some turd of a sibling who was going to ruin everything. You also might end up having a very interesting conversation with an existing significant other, though that said more about the cutie than you. Probably things that you should very much account for in a prospect. Otherwise, there was always the dread of having to leave a message. I don’t think anyone in the history of ever has ever been good at leaving messages, but if you were specifically bad at it, your ineptitude was going to be broadcast to everyone in earshot. But even that was an upgrade over a turd sibling.
The thing is, you understood that. You understood that there would potentially be some annoying kid brother making kissy noises in the phone and that it might well be yours. You also understood that if a man twice your age answered the phone that you were expected to make a good impression, because if all went well, you’d be calling him your father-in-law someday.
What you didn’t have was a potential for someone to steal your prospect’s phone and try to entrap you into saying something incriminating, as has circulated in memes within the past decade. Any father who wanted to impersonate his teenage daughter needed some real vocal practice. And because the only way of knowing who was going to pick up was knowing for sure that they lived alone as an orphan with no living friends and family, there was etiquette. If someone you wanted to talk to wasn’t available, you left a message with whoever answered and, unless they were a snot-nosed kid who wouldn’t give you to a parent, you could reasonably expect the message to be delivered. People just did that. If someone else picked up, you asked to talk to your intended conversation partner. There were rarely any cases where there wasn’t a good reason if that didn’t happen. If you didn’t connect for whatever reason, you waited a bit and called back or left the best message you could and waited for them to call you. Nobody thought twice about it. People were polite on the phone, understanding of wrong numbers, and there really wasn’t any ambiguity in communication. Text messages can be convenient, yes, but we all survived without them, probably better, because voice gives you feedback text doesn’t.
Landlines, in the absence of social media, were largely innocuous, and the problems everyone worried about with them seem paltry in comparison to what we deal with today.
Why I have a (fake) landline today
You know what else landlines were good for? Leaving them at home. Cell phones make it impossible to escape being called into work, or hassled by an overbearing family member you can’t just block, or otherwise dealing with someone in matters of money. Are you in the hospital after being pasted by a bus? Sorry, but your boss needs info for that TPS report, you have exactly one working thumb poking out of your body cast and you’re using it to type out the 4-page email. Are you an explorer in one of the most remote locations in the world? Sorry to break up this moment of awe, but your wife’s calling. Are you a hiker totally lost in the wilderness? Boy howdy, spam really has gotten worse, hasn’t it? We simply cannot escape because cell phones are at the same time our lifeline and our ball and chain.
The reason I have a (fake) landline is so I can give it to people who have no right to bother me during work hours, or my free time bumping around town, or really just whatever time I need to make it so I’m not 110% available. It’s still on the cellular network, which is a blessing and a curse. Blessing because whatever storm damage is in my area is bound to take out phone service eventually because we have trees and the towers are more resilient to that, but a curse because my house gets 2 bars of 4G on a good day and trying to find a spot for it where it will get any at all was more effort than one might expect. But I really don’t regret it. It was originally for my grandparents because they needed a Loud As Heck Old People Phone™ and Verizon had something likely as a cordless phone with a main station and 2 satellites that could be easily placed around anywhere they needed to access them. After they both passed, I figured rather than cancelling the line that it might be useful for me for the same reason. Having a landline, or at least a fake one, that I only give out to certain businesses, means that with the caller ID, I know who it is, I always have a charged unit near at hand around the house, and I can escape it.
The extra special bonuses include:
- the hardware is affordable and came with phone and fax ports
- it’s also long paid off
- it’s also 4G, so it won’t need any kind of upgrade for the foreseeable future (especially since I don’t fax)
- it’s cheaper for the line on my cell phone plan than landline service in my area without having to bundle it
- the line counts toward my monthly bonus data and takes none of it
- it’s USB powered, meaning if I had to pack up and take it with me for whatever reason, I could plug it into a wall with the adapter or a laptop or whatever I needed to
- it has its own internal battery that lasts for a good half hour to bridge whatever short power outage I might have or otherwise can be turned off to save power for when I need it
- and it works perfectly well with a cheap wall phone, which only takes maybe 6 volts according to some cursory research, and it’s enough to light it up on only 2 pins off the device on a 2-pin cord for dialing in the dark
The device itself isn’t fancy, but it doesn’t need to be. It’s basically a roaming telephone line. You hook it up to a phone and you have a phone. A dumb phone, but sometimes that’s all you want, and it’s better than nothing in an emergency. If I found myself in a situation where I needed it, it wouldn’t take much power, either. I could easily keep it charged in my car just based on the car solar panel I already have, not having to run the engine. That’s probably not something I could say of my smartphone.
Do I use it for a lot? No. Have I used it for real purposes? Yes. And if nothing else, my ex-housemate gave it a workout for cell phone location purposes.
Why is this useful?
For one, how many people have a burner phone? How many people turn it off when they don’t want to deal with it? This is the same basic premise. Not that it’s a burner device, but one you can escape. It’s also a second channel. Cell phones need to be charged. If someone doesn’t do that these days, it effectively severs all communication with them. Having a house phone will at least get you to someone who knows if you’re there or not and, worst case scenario, start the process of everyone figuring out where you’re supposed to be and if you’re actually there.
Text messages don’t convey tone or voice if you really need an assurance and the way people treat text messages as equal to calls when they’re not has led me to, more than once, have to worry whether a friend was straight-up murdered, not even joking. Ladies, if you are meeting a new guy, protip: if somone tries calling to check up on you because you were supposed to check in hours ago, don’t ignore the call and text back that there’s been a change in plans, your murderer could do that. A landline isn’t going to solve everyone worrying about your spur-of-the-moment night on the town, but if anyone was with you up until that point, it’s at least another way of contacting someone who’s either there or can give a last known location if people start talking posters.
Most realistically, it’s just another number your friends and family can call if you don’t answer your cell. Is it the most convenient format? No, but seeing as it’s unlikely or impossible for it to be just as out of battery as your cell phone, it means people can reach you at the times you’re most likely to be free. I’ve called my mom plenty on her landline when her cell phone wasn’t getting an answer because it was constantly dead.
If landline service were treated that way, as a supplement, I think it would make sense for people to have them again. But they’d need to be billed as a supplement. Like, seriously, my plan has benefits billing it like a standard line, but I’m in a pretty cushy plan you can’t get anymore with everything trying to move to far more expensive unlimited data that my family and friends simply don’t use enough of regularly to justify. And even then, billing the standard line is peanuts compared to what I’d pay without a bundle. So in my case it is effectively billed the way I like it. But I could see a lot of people on unlimited plans wanting maybe half price on the line, because it’s not like you can use it as anything but a phone. Maybe a family plan could come with a free family line for use only with a dedicated device. Even if that went to the elder family members, having a "silver-haired granny" feature built into the plan wouldn’t be a bad thing, and it wouldn’t be hard to mark a line with a "landline" flag in your database.
Overall, I feel like we are starting to realize now, in many ways, that the world we live in has a lot to learn from the world decades ago. Maybe some of that is nostalgia, but some of it is also good practical sense. The technologies and ways of yesteryear aren’t necessarily inferior; just different. Sometimes we don’t understand what we’ve lost because we’re told what we have is better, even if it’s not. We could live in a world where everyone has a family phone for emergencies, or to give to your employer, or that it would just be normal to give out to businesses in general because you can escape it and there’s etiquette around when you’re allowed to call it, and that might just be normal, because "available anytime, anywhere" is literally killing us. Imagine a world where you could leave work at the exit sign and that’s just normal again. Imagine a world where your boss’ name wasn’t right next to your best friend’s when you had to make a call.
Making a landline or some equivalent normal again would make for a seismic shift in our culture where our cell phones would be personal again, rather than having one device for both work and play. Trust me, psychologically, having different places for work and play is very important for your mental health, just like having different places to eat and use the bathroom. The human brain associates things. You work in a place, that place becomes the place where your work stress is and you’re awake. You don’t want that in your bedroom where you want to be calm and asleep. Your cell phone these days is the same way. Having one phone for everything is just like pulling your kitchen table up to your toilet and then we wonder why it smells like a rancid deuce when we’re trying to enjoy supper. If you want to love your phone again, take the things you don’t want in it and put them somewhere else. It would let you be a person again, rather than have to be a worker every hour of every day. We’re all effectively 24/7 on call. You used to get paid extra for that. You used to have a separate device for it, too: a pager. Remember pagers? They’re basically a device you took everywhere so your boss could text you anytime, anywhere. Most importantly, almost nobody had one. Somehow we went from that to almost everyone effectively having one.
Having a landline could be the cure for some of the worst infringements on our time today, and nothing is stopping us. I would encourage everyone to get an alternate phone for work and business purposes. It doesn’t have to be a good one. If you can buy a fake landline, or a flip phone, or just some device that you can leave at home and not worry, and use it for the stuff you want to leave behind, you could drastically improve your quality of life. And if someone insists on having your personal phone number? Maybe that’s a red flag. Treat it like your address vs. a key to your house. You’d give a lot more people your address than a key to your house. You’d let a lot more people mail you something than come straight in your front door in the middle of the night. That’s what’s really at stake here. We were sold the cell phone as a convenience, to be a device with us 24/7, but we really have to reconsider who it’s a convenience for, and consider whether we have a choice in the matter or can be selective, because the answer is we do and can; they’ve just told us otherwise. I’m just a small-time nobody on the Internet, but if we could normalize giving out our landline again, it would do a lot to wrest our lives back and give us actual downtime.
If there’s anything we have to learn from phones past, it’s that we were much happier with being able to leave them behind and for that to just be normal. We have the power; we just need to use it and tell everyone that’s just how it’s going to be again. Businesses might not like it, because being able to hassle us at any time is very convenient for them, but we can choose to make it a matter of our consent and they just have to deal with that. Ultimately, telling us we don’t have a right to that consent is a form of abuse, and it’s one we have every right to simply not respond to, whether it’s by having a second cell phone we choose not to take when we don’t want to be bothered or by giving them something they already know not to expect to find us at if we’re busy: a landline.