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E.B. White In 1964: 'Should A Machine Be Allowed To Use The Telephone?'

RotaryPhoneMost people know E.B. White as the author of Charlotte's Web, Stuart Little and perhaps even for his work editing William Strunk Jr.'s The Elements of Style, but the bulk of the author's work appeared in the pages of The New Yorker, where for over sixty years he wrote about politics, culture and his life up in Maine.

I was rifling through the magazine's archives the other day and came across a "comment" piece about how right-wing groups were using robo-calls to spread their divisive message.

Such calls are common place today, but in 1964, they were novel, a nuisance and, for White, worrisome.

"Should machine be allowed to use the telephone?" The author, writing in the royal we, wonders. "We think not. Or, rather, we think the regulations should be very right: only such canned messages as contribute to public health and safety should be permitted… All other use of the phone should be live, with someone talking into the thing at one end and someone listening at the other end, even if it's only a French poodle."

I gather White would not be a fan of the iPhone.

Read White's full comment on robo-calls and the rise of the machines AFTER THE JUMP.

From the October 24, 1964 New Yorker:

Senator [Jacob] Javits [of New York] told the Senate the other day that a right-wing group in Florida was using the telephone to spread tape-recorded messages of hate and distrust. Quite aside from the nasty political impact of this, a basic question of communication is involved. Should machine be allowed to use the telephone? We think not.

Or, rather, we think the regulations should be very right: only such canned messages as contribute to public health and safety should be permitted — a doctor's answering service, a roundup of weather, a time signal, thinks like that. All other use of the phone should be live, with someone talking into the thing at one end and someone listening at the other end, even if it's only a French poodle.

If we turn the facilities of the phone company over to machines, the possibilities for mischief are endless, the true purpose of communication is defeated, and the way is opened for the kind of abuse that is now causing concern.

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Comments

  1. The "jump" isn't working. At least it didn't for me.

    Posted by: Bill | Jul 5, 2012 10:54:34 AM


  2. Someone who worked on Elements of Style should have known better than to write in the third person.

    Posted by: Paul R | Jul 5, 2012 1:01:26 PM


  3. @Paul R -- If I remember right, this was the "voice" he used in the column, which was in keeping with the general tone of the New Yorker at that time.

    Also -- If a French Poodle wants to call up and solicit my vote, I'd be happy to listen!

    Posted by: Frank Butterfield | Jul 5, 2012 1:15:37 PM


  4. Andrew -- I love that the photo you used was of an ITT phone. My grandmother had one of those on her party line serviced by Century Telephone in NE Texas and NW Louisiana. I loved to dial it because the sound of the rotary return was very satisfying. It gave off more a clicking sound that the Western Electric rotary phones we had at home. Also, the spring was a lot tighter and you really had to hold on to the slot or it would slip back before you got all the way around.

    Posted by: Frank Butterfield | Jul 5, 2012 1:18:21 PM


  5. Mr. White was not using the "royal we," rather he was using what is referred to as "the editorial we" (sometimes referred to as "the author's we"). It was correct then and it is correct now.

    Personally, I found Paul R's comment presuming to correct a writer of White's stature particularly interesting. Displays of such monumental chutzpah are rare indeed.

    Posted by: John in Iowa | Jul 5, 2012 7:29:04 PM


  6. What a dull article.

    Posted by: Solomon | Jul 5, 2012 8:58:37 PM


  7. What an innocent time, 1964.

    Posted by: ratbastard | Jul 5, 2012 10:22:12 PM


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