Melissa Harris-Perry: This is The Takeaway. I'm Melissa Harris-Perry.
I'm old enough to remember the before times, before the internet, when, if you had a question, all you needed to do was dial 411. When you dialed, an actual human being would answer the call and answer questions about everything from business locations to movie showtimes. Now an era is drawing to a close. AT&T has announced the end of 411.
Here with me is Associate Professor of Communication at the University of New Hampshire, Josh Lauer. Josh, welcome to The Takeaway.
Josh Lauer: Nice to talk with you.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Talk to me about what 411 was and how it came into being.
Josh Lauer: 411 was the calling code for directory assistance. You mentioned information, but it became the specific number for just getting phone numbers. Early on, in the early part of the 20th century, information was that catch-all, where you could call an operator, and they would give you time of day, give you directions, tell you where to find things around town, but that particular service became specialized and became information for phone numbers only. As you mentioned, in the before times, before the internet, if you wanted a phone number, the only way to get it was either you had it or you looked in the telephone directory.
Since telephone directories were published semi-annually or annually, the numbers were out of date quickly, people moved, and so there were good reasons to actually have to call for directory assistance. As you mentioned, an operator would actually pick up and would be on the other side of that call looking through directories and giving you the information. This process became automated later on in the end of the 20th century, obviously, and we probably weren't going to call and talk to an operator anymore, but the 411 code still existed to get directory assistance.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Now you just say, "Hey, Siri," or, "Hey, Alexa," and ask all kinds of questions and presumably get some kind of answer, but it really is quite different than the kind of presumably specialized knowledge that we got from calling 411.
Josh Lauer: 411 really was just for telephone numbers at the end, but, again, telephone information used to be anything. You could call, and operators were used to giving time and weather, but they would also get all kinds of questions about recipes, where somebody lived in the neighborhood, and they would give very vague information about relationships, "This is someone's cousin. He used to work with so-and-so, who owns the grocery." Operators would answer all these questions that callers would provide for them.
Eventually, that became very specialized, and the telephone companies had their own operators who were designated information operators, who would take the calls and would presumably give just telephone numbers. It turns out, though, that it was hugely expensive for the telephone companies to provide information services, which became directory assistance because it was free.
For most of the 20th century, anyone could call and ask for the information, and there were no limits to the numbers of times that you could call. Not only were these information calls, directory assistance calls a burden for the telephone companies, they received, in some cities, a million a day. You can imagine the number of operators who were employed to answer these calls. By the 1970s, the telephone companies were trying really hard to get people not to use directory assistance.
In fact, one of the things that they pointed out is that a lot of people were, in their minds, just too lazy to look up the number themselves. They would call information and say, "Hey, what's this number?" rather than looking in the book themself. One of the examples of a telephone company that tried to stop this practice was in Washington, D.C. during the early 1970s. They actually put a recorded message on their information line that said, "Look it up in your own book," and then there was silence for about 8 to 10 seconds. Then, if you didn't hang up and look it up in your own book, an operator would finally come on and assist you.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Hold on, stay with me. We'll have more Takeaway in just a moment. We're back and still talking with Associate Professor of Communication at the University of New Hampshire, Josh Lauer, talking about 411. Josh, on the one hand, you're talking about this being this huge burden. On the other hand, it seems to me like there were a lot of people employed to do things that, obviously, became automated and no longer had those jobs. This is always that push-me-pull-me about technology. How many people will actually lose their jobs now as a result of the end of 411? Any?
Josh Lauer: Well, the number is probably pretty small. You're right, there has been, historically, a long debate about the numbers of operators and automation because another way that the telephone was automated was through dialing. Before the 1920s, if you wanted to dial a call, there was no dialing. You picked up the receiver, and the operator said, "Number, please," and then you told them the number that you wanted them to dial or to use the switchboard to reach. After the 1920s, you could call directly, and then the onus was on the caller.
I think a bigger-picture perspective is that it was a public service, and for most of the 20th century, the telephone companies, the Bell System was a regulated monopoly, and they provided information services as part of their service mandate as a regulated monopoly and utility in the United States. Because it was expensive during the 1970s and 1980s, when the Bell System was finally broken up, the Bell companies were trying to get permission to charge for directory assistance because it was expensive. I think the discontinuation of 411 and the elimination of a human voice is part of a longer story of a public service being ended and being eroded through automation, partly, but also, through privatization of telecommunication.
Melissa Harris-Perry: When you phrase it in that way and help us to see it as part of that public service, how much does it harken to or give us a sense of the ways that so many things we thought of and experienced as public services in that privatization have so shaped what our world is like now?
Josh Lauer: It's true. During the 1970s, when there were discussions about actually charging for directory assistance, many people were very upset. They were entirely used to being able to call and to get that information without an extra fee. There's also the element of automation, and I think, when some people learned that 411 was being discontinued, they were surprised that it still existed at all because they weren't even used to using it. I think that speaks to our assumption that we can't talk to people anymore and that, when we use a telephone to get customer service, we're going to be thrust into automation hell.
That's the expectation right now, but for a long time, there was a human voice on the other side, and they were there to help people locate information. Like I said, often, people would call with very skeletal information, and there might be people that had difficulty, just new to the city, or didn't know the city very well, and they could rely on operators to help them navigate their way.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Should information be free? Given that, if now our primary way to get information, if there's no longer a 411, means we have to rely on an internet service of some kind of a cellular service of some kind, and those are very much not free, those are not public utilities in the same way. Does that put information behind a paywall that is perhaps undemocratic in some core way?
Josh Lauer: Yes, and it also puts it behind a skill wall because there are certainly some people who are not adept at navigating the internet. You mentioned parents. If you set your parents onto the internet to find information, sometimes you get good information, sometimes you don't. There are also people that might have cognitive or physical limitations, people that don't have access or experience with that kind of technology, and they would still rely on that kind of a service to find telephone numbers. It might be a small number of people, but it's not nobody.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Who are they most likely to be? How are those people different maybe from a random draw from the population box?
Josh Lauer: Probably more likely to be elderly and lower income.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Josh Lauer is Professor of Communication at the University of New Hampshire. Thanks for taking the time out with us.
New York Public Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline, often by contractors. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of New York Public Radio’s programming is the audio record.