Phone books. Why?

Every now and then I find myself mourning the loss of those national icons that have fallen by the wayside as media has changed and evolved: Grandstand, The UK Top 40, a dog-eared copy of the AA Roadmap of Britain, Teletext, the lingerie pages of the Freemans catalogue.

But typically something quickly shakes me out of my reverie and I remember why the digital revolution is such a thoroughly great thing.

This week, that particular slap round the chops was administered by BT, who dumped this big pile of phone books outside our offices.

Phone books outside Elysium Gate

A week has passed and not a single phone book has been picked up. If ever there were a visual metaphor for the rapid pace of change in media, this was it. The scene could barely have been more poignant if someone had set fire to the whole miserable pile.

Given that there is nothing particularly atypical about these offices, this can only mean that across Britain there are literally hundreds of thousands of these strange bulky anachronisms just sitting there, rotting.

The obvious question is, why does BT do this? They must, for example, have research that says that pretty much all office-based businesses in the UK have access to this new-fangled internet system – and many of us actually pay BT for the privilege.

So why do they dump large volumes of these sorry books on our doorsteps? I’ve been thinking about this for the past few days and I’m stumped, so I’ve turned to ethnography for an explanation. My guess is that this is what ethnographers would call a ‘ritual’. A ritual, so ethnography tells us, is “a set of actions performed mainly for their symbolic value”. Or, try this: “a ritual aims to reaffirm a desired ideology which attempts to impose itself on everyday contradictions”. Another ethnographic school of thought describes rituals as “an attempt to control unpredictable events or to change the unchangeable”, which sounds about right.

But perhaps the biggest question is what is going to happen to all of these unwanted phone books? How about this ? Now that would be a truly beautiful irony.



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