Sunday, November 18

Italy: from SIP to SIM Card Supremacy - a look at telephones

As part of my occasional series on Italy: The Way We Were, I was spurred to ponder the history of Italy's twisted (as in spiral cords of way-back-when and recharging cords today) relationship with their telephones. Whenever I go to the movies, I find some joker busily texting or checking messages throughout the 96 minutes that a film director takes to attract your attention. But it used to not be this way.
Italians boast the greatest number of SIM Cards per capita worldwide. You can't walk down the street, or pass anyone in your car (and I don't mean the pedestrians) who you do not find gabbing away on the telephone. Incredibly, like many technical innovations, from faxes to Google, an Italian may have invented the telephone, but once it made its debut, authorities went out of their way to keep users disconnected.
Picture compliments of Ghismunda
Listening to a terrific radio show about phones, the presenter went thru its earliest forms, much like in the USA, starting with the use of an operator in order to place a call. Americans may recall (from the 1960s TV series, Petticoat Junction, no less) the use of the 'Party Line' - whereby the local operator would listen in on all the gossip (and no one seemed to mind about invasion of privacy back then).  In Italy, the party line morphed into the duplex line.  In order to save money, two apartments in a building would share the line.  People would bang on ceilings and floors in order to get someone off so they might make a call.  Thankfully, people couldn't listen in, and phone lines within homes remained dead up until the 1990s.  That was very different from my childhood when we could hold true parties, all talking from different rooms in the house.  In Italy, I'm sure the dead lines were a special feature meant to keep any prying ears out of earshot.
But generally, no one worried about burning up the phone lines - the cost was so prohibitive, Italians generally spoke for a few minutes max before hanging up furiously.  This was the case up til the 1980s and anyone over say, 80, still today will hang up in a rush while you're in mid-sentence.
Aside from the astronomical - and decidedly un-itemized - phone bills, companies and even families put padlocks on the phone just to make sure you didn't have the urge to 'let your fingers do the walking.'  Whenever I see Italians checking their messages incessantly, even in movie theaters, I can't help but think that this 'pent up demand' isn't somehow in their DNA due to decades of repression at the hands of the phone companies and family patriarchs that kept you from using your phone.
It wouldn't be until the 1990s that consumer's advocates finally forced Telecom Italia's hand to itemize bills.  Since then, Telecom Italia (& now their competitors in mobile phones) have done everything they can to pad your bills with untold 'charges' and other  shenanigans. [This is the case in the U.S. as well, except in Italy, we actually are afforded much better service when it comes to mobile phone lines.  The USA blundered with 'pay to receive' and then again by not providing the kind of coverage we are accustomed to in Europe.] Not to be outdone, even when you get your bill, companies only show a few digits of each tel number - for 'privacy' issues -- as if you hadn't dialed the number in the first place.
When cellphones came on the scene, phones finally came to fill their respectful place as a non-stop megaphone on which you could broadcast to complete strangers your most intimate secrets, business deals, you name it.  In old times, the SIP Telephone Co. produced a user's manual which talked about telephone etiquette.  Every now and again they crop up in the press, and they are quite welcome.  Admonishing young guys never to pull it out on a date, or others to leave it on the table, hoping it will ring.  I know plenty of relationships that never got off the ground for this annoying habit alone.  A recent etiquette guide said that restaurants are (finally) making them no-phone zones, just like the smoking bans of days gone by.
But, maybe restauranteurs are too late.  Now that people no longer actually speak to one another, we need people to get over the texting-while-driving era of our telephone use.  As for me, I'm still waiting for people to stop shining their displays to all and sundry when at the cinema - and just focus on the film.

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