social constraints on communication technology use

Variations in average telephone use have been relatively small across more than a century of telephone use. From 1893 to 1913, the number of telephones in many countries around the world increased by more than a factor of ten. The average number of intra-urban telephone conversations per subscriber telephone changed little. For example, the number of subscriber phones in Austria increased from 14 thousand to 146 thousand from 1893 to 1913.  The average number of conversations per phone fell from 7.3 per phone per day in 1893 to 6.6 per phone per day in 1913. For the countries for which data are available in both 1893 and 1913, the median country-average conversations per phone per day fell from 4.6 to 4.1.  These figures are similar for telephone use in the U.S. across the twentieth century.

Because communication is fundamentally related to social life, social structure significantly constrains communications technology use.  Persons who want to have a lot of telephone conversations have to find someone else likewise interested. But the social issue goes much deeper than common interest: forms and frequencies of communication are tightly bound up in social relations.  For example, talking frequently with someone usually signals an intimate personal relationship. It also values that relationship relative to other personal relationships.  Similarly, struggling with what to say or to write usually doesn’t arise from a lack of possible content.  The concern is with what is interesting, relevant, and appropriate.

Media technology changes quickly.  Social relations change slowly.

at the portrait museum

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Data: Telephones and intra-urban (local) telephone calls by country, 1893-1929 (Excel version).

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