This wasn’t my first experience with the radical new forms of sociality and peculiar new subjectivities made possible by digital technologies. I’d seen something like this before. As a college student in 1987 I worked building phone bridges for a company, PDQ Phone, that hosted telephone chat lines–e.g. the Love line, Fantasy Line, B & D Line, Transgender Line, Foot Fetish Line, Large and Lovely Line. These were essentially different phone numbers that paying customers (almost always men) could call to talk to women and one another. The key innovation, however, was that the women didn’t work for the company and were not paid professionals. A few individual women were simply given free access to “courtesy lines” and these amateurs kept whole bridges of paying customers on the line. In a sense, PDQ was selling these people to each other, not just the female volunteers to the male customers, but the audience to itself. These were party lines, not private one-on-one chats. Everyone chatted together as a group around the designated topic of the line. As such they were also telecommunities both similar to and rather different from those that sprang up via the Internet.
Did the PDQ product line constitute new publics, or new markets? At that time I couldn’t have asked such a question and I can not answer it yet, but the theme of consumer/citizen has been central to my thinking since that time.
PDQ was founded by an MIT grad who saw opportunity in the telecommunications deregulation of the1980s. Around the time it became possible legally for new companies to offer telecommunications services (networked products), it became possible technically and economically. The functionality of analog telephone exchanges that used to take up entire buildings could now be replicated in computer hardware and software. With digital technology PDQ could advertise local phone numbers in New York and across New England that were operated from their offices in Kendall Square. I quickly saw the strange and extraordinary potential of the digital lines that went into service in the summer of 1988.
In a quarter the space taken by the analog equipment to host 8 lines with a total of 64 callers, a single operator sitting at a computer with headphones could moderate dozens of lines and hundreds of callers across a widely expanded geographic region. At the time computer networks were revolutionizing the economy with derivative products (futures, options) and 24/7 capital flows. I couldn’t help notice the parallels to the extraordinary telephonic “derivative products” that digital telephony made possible for PDQ. For example, the voyeuristic “Bedroom”, where paying customers called in to listen to two people having “phone sex,” something permitted on only two of the other party lines. The exhibitionists “in the Bedroom” would call an unpublished courtesy number and could communicate only with each other. They could not hear their audience. Paying customers however, could talk to each other as they listened in. Watching the moderators of these lines deal with troublemakers and the various social issues that came up was instructive to me years later in relation to the Internet.