The End of the Hangup

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.

The physical design of telephones has made the hangup impossible for the would-be hanger-up as well. The model 500 series telephone supports hangups as a function of its physical form. It comes in two parts, base and handset, offering something to hang up and something to hang it upon. Flip-style mobile phones were the last devices to offer a physical equivalent, the crisp, satisfying snap of the closing shell offering a reasonable parallel to the handset and hook.

Hanging up on someone is a physical act, a violent one even, one that produces its own pleasure by discharging acrimony. Like the model 500, the flip-phone supports hang ups because its form is capable of resisting them; because it can survive the force a hangup delivers. Just try to hang up your iPhone or your Samsung Galaxy. I don't mean just ending a call, but hanging up for real, as if you meant it. For a moment you might consider throwing the handset against a wall before remembering that you shelled out three, four, five hundred dollars or more for the device, a thing you cradle in a cozy as if it were a kitten or a newborn.

Everyone is a milquetoast when a smartphone is in their hand. Relenting, you might slide it across a table or a counter to signal your distress -- with a necessary gentleness that belies true disgust. 

By contrast, the model 500 handset acted as a proxy, a voodoo doll for your interlocutor as much as an audio route. The mobile handset is different: an extension of the self rather than an implement. To do violence to it amounts to self-harm rather than catharsis. In fact, it's barely possible even to hangup mobile calls in the ordinary sense, after their natural completion in typical circumstances. The solid handset of the Bell era may remain imprinted upon smartphone displays or buttons as skeuomorphic icons, but the device itself invites you simply to "end" the call, like one might end high tea. And even that isn't necessary. Unlike a conventional switched line, a mobile device won't remain on the grid absent a live connection. After a call, it's not uncommon simply to stow a smartphone without further interaction and wait for the other party's disconnection to terminate the call.

Lamenting the demise of hangups offers little more than crass nostalgia for an admittedly weird, anonymous aggression. It's pointless wistfulness, too, since the phone call itself has become an endangered species. Today we have replaced synchronous communication methods with asynchronous ones: email, text message, even instant messaging are means of dispatch for which reply is never guaranteed, nor perhaps even expected. Where the analog telephone sampled the voice of its callers as they spoke, computer and smartphone communication systems sample larger temporal swaths of social behavior.

Today, we've traded in our hangups for our hang-ups. The social disruption we now give or get via mobile devices is not the belligerence of hanging up or having been hung up on, but the neurosis of not having received a response. In place of the threat of disengagement in fixed-line switched analog telephony, we find a subtly different fear in cellular telephony and its digital cousins: that of disregard. In the past the telephone was most threatening when it cut someone off; today it its greatest menace is to reveal that you were never really connected in the first place.