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

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.


  1. Frank Butterfield says

    @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!

  2. Frank Butterfield says

    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.

  3. John in Iowa says

    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.

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