The End of the Hangup

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Why the physical form of smartphones and the unreliable operation of cellular networks has made hanging up the telephone impossible.

Western Electric model 500

Western Electric model 500 telephone (Ian Bogost)

"Can I use my telephone to call Grandma?" my daughter asks. She means the Western Electric model 500 we bought at an antiques store at her insistence -- a curiosity that is now more household sculpture than communication appliance.

The model 500 is the most common telephone set ever made, issued by Bell Systems from the 1950s through their divestiture in 1984. A black, desktop phone with a heavy handset and an angled rotary dial face: it's iconic, the archetype of "telephone." Or at least it used to be.

The telephone jacks and lines in our pre-war bungalow still work even if we use them rarely, preferring our mobile phones for daily calls. I plug in the model 500 and show her how to dial it: swish-whirrrrr, swish-whirr, swish-whirrrrrrrrrrr.

Halfway through the conversation, Grandma has disappeared. "I don't know what happened," my son reports. It turns out he had depressed the hook switch and closed the line. Today's expectations don't quite match a device designed for the 1950s. If modern user interaction designers had their way with the model 500, depressing the hook switch while a call was connected would probably prompt the caller: "Are you sure you want to disconnect the current call? Dial 1 for yes, 2 for no."

I help the kids call grandma back and we all have a laugh about it. But the unfortunate encounter with the model 500 hook switch makes me realize: it's no longer possible to hangup a phone.

When I was a kid, we had a bright yellow, rotary Western Electric model 554, the wall-mountable companion to the 500 desk set. Before answering machines, caller id, *69, and eventually smartphone address books allowed us to screen calls quickly, a ringing phone was a pressing matter. It could mean anything: a friend's invitation, a neighbor's request, a family emergency. You had to answer to find out. Telephones rang loud, too, with urgency and desperation. One simply did not ignore the telephone.

In the context of such gravity, the hangup had a clear and forceful meaning. It offered a way of ending a conversation prematurely, sternly, aggressively. Without saying anything, the hangup said something: we're done, go away.

My father took great pride in hanging up our model 554 phone violently when something went awry. An inbound wrong number dialed twice in a row, or an unwelcome solicitor. Clang! The handset's solid mass crashed down on the hook, the bell assembly whimpering from the impact. The mechanical nature of telephones made hangups a material affair as much as a social one. A hangup is something your interlocutor could feel physically as much as emotionally, and something you couldn't downplay either. Like slamming a door or yelling at a child, hanging up a phone couldn't be subdued or hidden.

Unlike today's cellular network, the public switched telephone network was robust and centralized thanks to monopoly. Apart from flukes like my son depressing the hook switch, a disconnected landline call is almost unheard of. By contrast, it's not possible to hang up on someone via smartphone with deliberateness, because it's so much more likely that the network itself will disconnect of its own accord. Every call is tenuous, constantly at risk of failing as a result of system instability: spectrum auctions, tower optimizations, network traffic, and so forth. The infrastructure is too fragile to make hangups stand out as affairs of agency rather than of accident.

Today a true hangup -- one you really meant to perform out of anger or frustration or exhaustion -- is only temporary and one-sided even when it is successfully executed. Even during a heated exchange, your interlocutor will first assume something went wrong in the network, and you could easily pretend such a thing was true later if you wanted. Calls aren't ever really under our control anymore, they "drop" intransitively. The signal can be lost, the device's battery can deplete, the caller can accidentally bump the touch screen and end the call, the phone's operating system can crash. The mobile hangup never signals itself as such, but remains shrouded in uncertainties.

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Ian Bogost is a writer, game designer, and contributing editor at The Atlantic. He is the Ivan Allen College Distinguished Chair in media studies and a professor of interactive computing at the Georgia Institute of Technology.

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