I just sent an email to a classmate. Appended to that email like all others was my email signature, which I created this past summer before starting my studies at Penn. I had grown used to the signature over four years working at a firm that has a standardized, personalized (mass customized?) signature for all of its employees’ outgoing emails, and thought it would be wise to use one for my personal emails as well. While working, I would frequently reference a consultant’s email signature before placing a call. For me, the email inbox had replaced the phonebook.
Incidentally, the first telephone directory was printed in 1878 in New Haven, Connecticut, where I had been working. It covered 50 local subscribers on a single page. Today there are approximately 540 million phonebooks delivered every year, generating 700,000 tons of waste. (The venerable Bible, since it is not updated annually, sells only 100 million copies per year.) Still, despite its ubiquity, the phonebook has almost completely disappeared from my experience of the world. It is a phenomenological ghost, simultaneously existent and forgotten.
What of the disappearance of the phonebook? First, digital media has largely replaced paper media. Any phone number is a quick google search (or a goog-411) away. More importantly, though, the cell phone has replaced the land line. Any of the phone numbers called on any given day are likely already stored in the device used to place the call. As a result, our virtual and actual proximity to any given individual is likely to be inverted. Out of all the people I stand next to in a day, whether on the sidewalk, on a bus, or in class, only a handful are in my contact list. Likewise, out of all the people in my contact list, I will only stand next to a handful of them in a day. The phonebook served to define a local community, a network, that no longer exists. We are left with the hyper-local, a network that need not bear any relation to physical localities. Members of network culture now carry their own hyper-local phonebooks in their pockets.
This brings me back to the email signature. It is the bait to establish a connection. The means of inserting my own number into as many hyper-local phonebooks as possible.
Also, check this out: