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Pay Phones

My all-time favorite New York Times article is probably this reflection on pay phones and the people who still make calls on them. In early 2010, a reporter spent two days hanging around a dingy pay phone outside of a Fast & Fresh in Kew Gardens, Queens, observing who used it and finding out why. In his piece, he also digresses to muse about the pay phone’s obsolescence given the ever-growing onslaught of mobile phones, and the article’s great surprise, in fact, is that anyone at all still uses pay phones for ordinary calls.

Pay phone use has declined rapidly, but pay phones themselves are disappearing at a slower pace. Throughout the United States, pay phones are still fixtures of public space. Sidewalks and building lobbies almost always have one. At the time of the New York Times article’s publication, New York City still had 16,000 pay phones on its sidewalks (and an unknown number within its buildings) although that total was greater than 33,000 just ten years prior.

As invisible as their role has become, pay phones still command a physical presence out of proportion to their usefulness: They occupy significant space on narrow city sidewalks and get their own hallways in hotel lobbies and airports. Often the shell of a pay phone remains in place after the phone itself has vanished. It’s surprising to see someone using a pay phone, but it still happens, and it’s almost worth mentioning when noticed. The pay phone is still one of the most consistent and repetitive patterns of the urban environment, and proof that technology leaves a concrete residue behind after its replacements surpass it by large strides. There is simply no good reason to tear the infrastructure down as quickly as we move on to something better.

Pay phones, in a sense, are ruins of a past society interspersed with the contents of the present one. Their continued existence and use, as described in the article, support one of William Gibson’s most compelling observations: The future is already here, it’s just not evenly distributed.

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