Noisy Behaviors on the Line

City Noise Report 1929

This distortion story focuses on the biggest media company of the early 20th century – Bell Telephone Company and how they produced the media category of noise. Measuring and deciding what types of behaviors should be categorized as noise enabled Bell to remove anything that could harm their business. The chapter focuses on two events that show how categorizing actions as noise gave Bell Telephone power: The first event goes back to the 1930s and the Noise Abatement Commission (NAC), which collaborated with Bell to create a map to spot problematic noisy groups of people and practices.

Regulating street advertising. New York Times, 1930.

The main goal was to turn various spaces across New York City towards commerce-orientated activities. To do that they have used multiple strategies such as zoning of the city, invention of new measuring instruments and units which quantify noise, demarcating social/market and public/private boundaries, licensing specific businesses, changing houses architecture, and changing city’s architecture. But to do that, Bell had to define the people and behaviors that interfered with that goal as noisy. These included street commerce or unauthorized house parties, and also unions protests in Union Square.

Racist depiction of the Ashman from City Noise book 1929

Just like the other laws examined in Media Distortions, they were enforced only when it came to groups of people who were considered to be noise, a disturbance in the business model of the big media companies. So as the images here show, the people who were considered to be noise are mainly black and foreign. As you can see in the image here below, the law indicated that excessive noise should be avoided, but who decides what is excessive and what is necessary? This is where Bell Telephone, experts along with others at the NAC were able to decide which behaviors should be categorized as noise.

I started this chapter by examining Bell Telephone’s technical journal. Going over dozens of issues with hundreds of pages, trying to find how they conceptualized noise, how they visualized it through various diagrams and images. I also found the City Noise book at the Wellcome Trust library which helped reveal a lot of the way New York City restructured its city. It was around the Stock Market Crash in the end of the 1920s and several interest groups wanted to create a different kind of city that can accommodate their businesses such as Bell Telephone, real estate agencies,insulation companies, and other rich classes of society who saw this opportunity to push everyone who was a distortion to its capitalist harmony – Black Americans, Jews, and any other poor foreigner.

Bell Telephone Quarterly 1933

Since noise was portrayed as harmful, unhealthy and uncivilized, services and products that could prevent or decrease it were sold. It was easier to sell noise-prevention, -reduction and -elimination products and services since noise became an object. Noise was produced as a commodity, a measurable unit, something that could be located to specific objects or specific human characteristics and behaviors. Bell’s involvement with the Noise Abatement Commission fitted another goal they both shared: to get rid of street commerce (push cart and vendors) in favor of retail stores. These stores indirectly helped to advertise the telephone company since they encouraged their customers to call their stores in order to buy something. The ad that you see here above is an example of many whereby Bell tries to sell people the idea they should purchase things over the phone – A new way to do business. Therefore, Bell started what it called co-operative advertising, which helped both the stores and the telephone company to increase sales.

But then, just like with my previous research, something led me to a different source which helped shed more light on it all. I started to find Bell’s magazine (called Bell Telephone Quarterly until the 1940s) and from it came all the information about the telephone operators. The second event focuses on the 1940s and the way Bell needed to categorize behaviors that jeopardize their telephone service and apparatus as noise. Here the focus is on the telephone operators’ training program, called A Design for Living. Since the operators embodied the telephone it was essential to train them to avoid noisy behaviors. Training their bodies was meant to turn the telephone operators into efficient and fast processing machines – A ‘real-time’ experience with media.

Telephone operators were trained to monitor the infrastructure, detect malfunctions, and understand what customers were saying, sooth their anger, and filter noise from the signal, all while using their memory to predict future malfunctions. They were part of the communication channel and its filter. Importantly, as telephone operators were able to fix the apparatus, like engineers, another key characteristic they embodied was feedback: the ability to adjust future conduct according to past knowledge. These functions were later partly delegated to automatic communication channels operated by several technologies such as codes, algorithms, and protocols. However, their crucial position in hiding decision-making processes and maintaining a competitive edge means that their position was not completely erased but rather changed into a new title: content moderation.

Before Google Search Engine there were the Information Operators 1941

As I show in this story, there is a decision-making process used by these human communication channels. Their work can determine which people and behaviors are considered illegitimate, deviant, noisy, or spam. By doing so, media companies want to avoid having important discussions on the way they establish what is a disturbance, an illegitimate behavior or groups of people. They shift the responsibility to automation, these things they supposedly have no control over because they function in an automated, engineered, and objective way—just following orders.

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