Death (or not) of the dial

A thought on technology, behaviour and language.

Yesterday I was watching this youtube video in which children were introduced to an old-fashioned telephone — a ‘rotary phone’ if you’re in the United States, or a ‘dial phone’ if you’re in the British commonwealth. If you were born after about 1995, you might not know what I’m talking about. Perhaps you’ve seen this device at your Mum or Dad’s office if they work in the public sector. They’re the phones that have a ‘hand-piece’ which is the bit that you pick up and hold to your ear, attached to the base unit by a coiled length of soft cable. The hand-piece looks a bit like a banana with a small cup at each end, one for speaking into and the other for listening through.

Most peculiar to the young audience in the video was the round face that is angled at about a 45 degrees on the front/top surface of the device. This round face has 10 holes in it that correspond to the digits zero (0) to nine (9). It is affixed at its center, allowing the round face — the ‘dial’ — to rotate.

There are many videos online, like this one, that explain how these peculiar devices work. They are full of interesting sounding components like the a dial-pulse (DP) contact, a set of gears that reduce the gear ratio and of course there’s the ‘governor’, that regulates the return speed of the dial. On the front side of the dial there’s a ‘finger wheel’ and a ‘finger stop’. Together, these parts are collectively know as the ‘dial’.

One would imagine that the word ‘dial’ precedes the telephone, even these old ones. Sure enough, the origin of ‘dial’ is middle English (denoting a mariner’s compass): from medieval Latin diale ‘clock dial’, based on Latin dies ‘day’. The online etymology dictionary goes on to say “the word perhaps was abstracted from a phrase such as Medieval Latin rota dials “daily wheel,” and evolved to mean any round plate over which something rotates.”

Aside from the the fact that I like to know how things work, what I find curious, and the point of this musing, is the relationship between technology, behaviour and language.

We invent something new (the telephone), we need a verb to explain a behaviour exhibited when engaging with this new thing (to ‘dial’ a number, derived from ones interaction with the physical dial on the telephone), and when the thing is superseded by something newer/better that might not consist of the same design or components, we retain the language, even though it no longer makes ‘technical’ sense.

Most of us now use digital phones — mobile phones, smart phones or those things that don’t fit into these two categories but still referred to as a variety of things (home phone, cordless phone, land-line, touch-tone phone etc). None of them have a ‘dial’. Instead, they have a decimal keypad — a collection of buttons (typically 12 including the ‘hash’ (#) and ‘star’ (*) keys). Sometimes they’re actual physical buttons, or increasingly commonly they’re just a graphical representation of those buttons on a flat screen.

One might therefore ask: why do we still refer to the physical act of pressing buttons with the intention of calling another phone as ‘dialling’? Instead of saying “dial 111” to call the emergency services, would it not be more correct to say “press 111”?

Perhaps we are already on our way to phase ‘dial’ out of our telephonic vocabulary. When you’re stuck in the seemingly unnavigable labyrinth of automated answer systems at utility companies, you’re no longer asked to “dial 2 for sales” but rather “press 2…”. It seems though that the word for the action of pressing numbers to call another phone is rather more pervasive and “dial” remains our go-to verb.

This raises interesting questions for other technologies and one might even wonder if this effect will become more pronounced or problematic as the pace technological innovation increases according to Moore’s Law. Having worked in design and technology for several years for example, I have seen the same birth and demise of many other phrases. ‘New Media’ agencies were replaced with ‘Multimedia’ agencies which are now referred to as ‘Digital’ agencies. They’re basically all just iterations on the same thing. What will be next?

And in a future where telephones are fully voice activated, or perhaps don’t even exist, will the YouTube video from 2050, in which children are trying to work out what an iPhone6 is and how it works, be equally curious and amusing?

Finally, as the pace of technological innovation increases, should we be thinking more carefully about the terminology we use to explain things and perhaps choose words that better stand the test of time. Just a thought.