Revelations about government snooping and corporate data mining don’t shock me. When I was a kid, our phone was tapped repeatedly, and a local Big Brother knew everything about us. Big Brother’s name was Pauline, the town switchboard operator. She gathered data more efficiently than the NSA, but unlike the overlord in Orwell’s famous novel, Pauline was liked and respected.
Many rural folks used the party-line telephone system during the first half of the 20th century. Subscribers saved money by joining a group, and each of the six or eight households had its own identifying ring. Ours was two shorts and a long, and when anyone in our house was on the phone, no one else in the group could use the line. If I called my fourth-grade buddy about the baseball cards I was taking to the next day’s show-and-tell, the other families had to wait to use the phone.
The system had obvious drawbacks. Any member of the party line could listen in, and some became expert snoops. If you heard the specific ring for another household, you could carefully lift the receiver and hear about Bernice’s lumbago or the cattle Albert bought at the Lawn Hill Livestock Sale. If you sneezed or dropped the receiver, the gig was up.
Pauline had control of the links, lines, and metadata. She sat at the main server in our town of 511 people, and her talents ranged from plugging in the right connectors to building her own type of rural algorithm. She needed to listen in to know that callers hooked up, and at times, she did some data mining to help out. If Alice called to get a message to her husband Roy at the feed store, Pauline might say, “Well Alice, I just saw him cross the street and go into Johnson’s Hardware. I’ll ring there.” I’m not sure what Pauline would have said if Roy had ambled down the street to the pool hall for a beer.
Pauline could make a general ring when the need arose—town events or emergencies. She was a combination of Google search, a 911 call center, and Twitter. Her tweets might be about severe weather, a kid lost in a cornfield, or some local boy just back from military service. Her messages were a lot clearer and more relevant than most tweets that float in the digital world now.
A few members of our party line were tweeters—concise and quick. But others were bloggers—they chronicled every detail of their exciting day. “Raymond spent all morning working on that greasy tractor engine, and I’ve been baking cookies. Now here’s the recipe I picked up at the church social.”
I was barely a teenager when the system ended, so my social media habits were juvenile at best. Kids like me were more into spamming than eavesdropping. For example, a young man down the road spent hours matching sighs on our party line with his girlfriend. “Whatcha doin?” Sigh. Pause. “Not much.” She’d sigh. “You?” Sigh. “Me too.” That’s about the time a ten-year-old like me would make a Three Stooges noise into the phone in hopes they would finally hang up so I could call Nick to find out what Eddie Haskell did on last night’s episode of Leave It to Beaver.
Like the Big Data of today, the party line was a double-edged sword. We got to know the neighbors, and the town’s Big Brother gave us a certain sense of community. And as with the digital world, privacy was almost nonexistent. We had an open Facebook without the visuals, and sometimes the imagination conjures up better images than awkward family pics.
But unlike today, the data we mined seemed a bit less edgy. Pauline’s general message about the weekend horse show in town probably wouldn’t stir the attention of homeland security. And my wiretapping of the young lovers down the road had me thinking romance was meaningless and boring. Sigh.
by dan gogerty (photo from homestretch-annie.blogspot)