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Toward a Phone in Every Pocket

As telephone technology broadens its reach, will clarity of thinking and alertness be the loser?

ALEXANDER GRAHAM BELL would have been disappointed.

Next year's celebration of the 120th anniversary of the invention of the telephone will not include the technology to contact him. But the communication wizardry that Bell triggered revolutionized the social culture of the whole earth, perhaps like nothing else known to man.

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The telephone was the first consumer interactive electronic device and the first electronic network. Telephoning proved to be easier and quicker than shouting, waiting for mail, or even sending a telegram. Today, the concept of person to person telephoning remains a key link in the Rubik's cube of the telecommunications revolution that is fast becoming the information superhighway.

From Bell's first commercial call in 1878, use of the telephone has grown to around 300 million calls on an average day in the United States. The Federal Communications Commission estimates 94.2 percent of US homes have one or more telephones.

``The telephone came about in a social environment in which everything was written,'' said Burke Stinson, a spokesman for AT&T in New Jersey. ``And there was always time for a nicely turned phrase to be written and mailed. At first, the phone was too informal and not socially acceptable. It was barely acceptable in business, except to get things rolling.''

But today, has the technological revolution, including the telephone, rolled along too far? Has it pulled man into a continuous time loop, the reputed value of which is beginning to fade? As Martin Moore-Ede concludes in his book, ``The Twenty Four Hour Society,'' US culture has become focused on the optimization of technology and equipment instead of ``on the optimization of human alertness and performance.''

The optimization of the phone today is seen, or heard, in the cellular- phone revolution. Slipped into someone's pocket, this kind of phone means that a telephone number is now connected to a person, not a place.

``In the 1950s, an engineer at AT&T said something that caused a lot of people to gulp,'' said Mr. Stinson. ``He predicted that someday everyone in this country will be assigned a phone number at birth, and have it all their life. And when you phone that number someday, and don't get an answer, it means the person died. And it caused people to gulp because we're not so sure that kind of number should be used.''

To nearly everyone, the phone has become irreversibly useful, if a little too intrusive. ``The phone has made us more communicative, but at the same time it has given this country less of a feel for written words,'' said Stinson, ``and the clarity of thinking that writing demands. But the phone is very practical for keeping in touch. Millions of people communicate on the phone to the same people every day.''

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The history of the phone, and other technological innovations, is one in which technology slowly pared away workers. In the 1920s, new rotary dialing on the phone replaced local operators. Later a new kind of switching for long distance phones made many other operators obsolete. Area codes were established in 1951. And in 1971, the first 800 number for business was used by Sheraton Hotels.

Today, with digital technology teaming with fiber optics, competition among telephone companies is something like a benign octopus. Consumers are wrapped in beepers, pagers, answering machines, voice mail, fax machines, modems, etc.

The array of telephone sources of information, services, advice - and with a personal computer, access to worldwide networks of information - is truly mind-boggling and virtually immediate. Compare the following examples from today with the way they would have been handled in 1950:

Crime. Has there been a robbery in your house? Call 911.

Shopping. Do you need a new coat? Order it from a catalog with a 24-hour toll-free 800 number.

Cooking. Worried about how to store meat? Call the ``Meat and Poultry Hotline'' at 1-800-535-4555.

Sports. Do you want to know all the final scores in sports? Call the New York Times SportsDial 900 number operating 24 hours a day and pay 50 cents a minute to listen.

Mr. Moore-Ede concludes that ``engineers have ruled supreme this century'' in creating the 24-hour society. He praises the miniaturizing and microprocessing of the world. ``Never has the can-do attitude been more alive,'' he writes, but suggests that people requirements should come first if man is to enjoy the benefits technology provides.

But warning signs for one generation are welcomed by another. ``The kids today are growing up with personal computers, and they like the idea of videophones,'' said Stinson.

``The MTV generation doesn't have a fear that technology is swallowing us up. When my daughter and I went out for a ride in my car, and she made a call with a cellular phone for the first time, her reaction was, what took so long?''

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