Communication – Sunday 6th September 2009

Posted on September 6, 2009


Palmers Green loses contact with the outside world!

The first trunk call using a public telephone box was made fifty years ago this month

So declared our local newspaper in May 1912. To be more precise, “telephonic communication” was lost, after the only public call box in the area, outside Palmers Green Station, fell out of order. The ensuing chaos is reported in detail by The Recorder’s correspondent, who describes how our forebears were forced to use the telephone in Mr Barton’s chemist’s shop because the telephone exchange had: “no instrument which can be used for speaking to anyone over the wires.” It is unclear whether Mr Barton levied a charge for the service, but he seemed to have been the only person able to persuade the operator to make the necessary connections; he possessed that “winning manner which makes a request for a number sound like an appeal for a gracious favour”. Mr Barton’s ability to butter-up telephonists was made redundant fifty years ago this month, as on September 5th 1959 the Deputy Lord Mayor telephoned the Lord Mayor of London using the first trunk call dialling system from a public call-box, consigning the Button A and Button B ‘phones to the history books.

In the previous edition of The Spire, our Editor asked us to consider how social media, such as Facebook and Twitter, might help us at Christ Church. During the summer, communication was a hot topic of conversation. At a splendid event in Chelsea in July I was seated with a retired barrister and former ‘Baker Street Irregular’ who described her early life as a codebreaker with the SOE at its India Mission base – a living witness to the importance of communication in shaping the world we know today. She went on to explain, as only a high-born octogenarian can, how she had just returned from an archaeological tour of Iran. Recounting how the natives had been so welcoming and courteous “especially to women,” she told how she had heard nothing of the violent response to the protests following the presidential election. With press censorship and TV and mobile telephone signals jammed inside the country, the global media relied on You Tube, Twitter and Facebook to follow the developing story. Clearly we should be thankful for the broader perspective offered to us as a result. Yet despite the empowering and democratising consequences of this new technology, those who are masters of the arts of Blogging or Tweeting here in Britain seem less sanguine about its impact – meeting the veteran political blogger Iain Dale in June, I was surprised to learn that he still harboured political ambitions, despite his fame and fortune in the online world “because the real power still lies in Westminster.”

The debate about the impact of technology on society is not new. In 1970 the sociologist Alvin Toffler claimed that the average office worker interacted with a higher number of people in a single week than someone living in a feudal society in a lifetime. (I’m sure that today’s sociologists will be closely following the countries of East Africa, after a new under-sea high speed internet cable went live in July). Toffler’s book, ‘Future Shock’ explores a psychological condition of the same name, defined as a cultural disorientation caused by “too much change in too short a period of time” citing the majority of social problems as symptoms of the condition.

In terms of embracing change, I think Toffler has been proven wrong; after all, Southgateis full of “Silver Surfers.” However, his predictions do ring true when considering the effects of new media on ‘real-world’ human interaction across the generations, as Dr Kathleen Richardson, a robot anthropologist at Cambridge University confirms in her paper ‘Over (net)worked’: “If you are over 30, you may find facebook a rather puzzling phenomenon”. In explaining why only 10-20% of the ‘friends’ on an average Facebook account are actively engaged with, Dr Richardson concludes “social networking technologies have the power not only to map our relationships, but also change the meanings we give to them.” It is startling to consider that a 140 character Tweet can affect the meaning of human relationships! However, perhaps this fluidity in meaning and blurring of boundaries provides an opportunity for the Church; a chance to overcome prejudice and preconceptions, reaching out to those who would not otherwise consider the possibility of God taking a more prominent role in their lives?

I am sure that the collapse of a Facebook or Twitter account would be as socially disruptive to some as the broken public telephone in Palmers Green a century ago. I wonder though, if our modern day socialites have enough neighbourly rapport to ask to borrow a laptop?