A Telephonic Conversation
by Mark Twain

Review by
Robert Wilfred Franson

The Atlantic Monthly, June 1880

Collected Tales, Sketches, Speeches, & Essays,

  1852-1890 March 2010

Mark Twain & the telephone

In 1879, Mark Twain became a very early adopter of Alexander Graham Bell's new invention (in 1876) of the telephone, a big step beyond the telegraph because it made possible voice communication at a distance, ordinary talk via electric current over a wire. A new adventure for humanity. Being Mark Twain, he also was early and keenly aware of some cultural side effects and ironies of new technological developments.

Twain's sketch "A Telephonic Conversation" recounts an overheard conversation in his home, perhaps partly fabricated or embellished but true to life. This sketch is so early in the history of the telephone that it's likely that the majority of Americans, even of readers of his sketch, had never yet heard a voice via a telephone. Twain introduces it thusly:

Then followed that queerest of all the queer things in this world, — a conversation with only one end to it. You hear questions asked; you don't hear the answer. ... You have listening pauses of dead silence, followed by apparently irrelevant and unjustifiable exclamations of glad surprise, or sorrow, or dismay. You can't make head or tail of the talk, because you never hear anything that the person on the other end of the wire says.

Then he provides the overheard half-conversation: tantalizing, amusing, and confusing. Sound familiar? One person's joyous communication may be the next person's overheard confusion and frustration. With the quick rise and ubiquity of cellular-phone technology, these half-conversations now are out of the home and office, babbling in the street and market, in fact almost everywhere.

We may think of conversation as one of the most important ingredients in personal chemistry, even as the distinctively human glue which holds our society together. So conversation is a social good, even essential to humanity. But half-conversations — ?

A cosmos of half-conversations

Before the invention of the telephone, being overheard carrying on an earnest or laughing conversation with a person that no one else could hear, and that even the one-sided speaker readily would admit that he couldn't see himself — well, that was considered madness, pure and simple: perhaps benign talkativeness, a harmless vocal communion with no-one-there, or with the cosmos itself; or perhaps worse. At any rate, around the bend.

I presume that one looming technological impact as the transparency juggernaut rolls over us, permeating our culture on the way to the transparent society, is that of telephonic eavesdropping: simple cell-phone applications that will tap into, decrypt, and report others' mobile datastreams. Then we will be able to hear both sides of telephonic conversations (this is simple curiosity); and passing strangers will be able to hear both sides of our own telephonic conversations (that is an outrageous invasion of privacy). Same applies to text messages sent and received, websites visited, and so on. Just another sparkling front in the perpetual war of privacy / barriers / security / encryption, versus openness / gates / transparency / decryption.

There is a solution. In the olden days of straightforward physical presence, from prehistory well into the modern age, the simplest solution to ending all conversations, or to cease overhearing a madman's half-conversation, has been to walk away. That still is usable today. And if we ourselves are involved in overlong or even interminable telephonic conversations, to the point of hearing enough or more than enough or even thinking that we are auditors of distant madmen (well-meaning or no) — what then is to be done? How to unstick this cosmic distance-closing glue?

When you get the message, hang up the phone.

Alan Watts
Prologue  (expanded edition, 1970)
The Joyous Cosmology:
Adventures in the Chemistry of Consciousness


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© 2010 Robert Wilfred Franson

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