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Menachem's Blog

The Yellow Monstrosity
Who needs a phone book in 2008?

I had just arrived home the other morning, slowly digesting my daily coffee, chocolate and ginger combo from the gym (shared with Chaim, Alexei and Steve) and half dreaming of the upcoming steamy bowl of lentil and miso soup waiting for me for breakfast, when I caught site of it out of the corner of my eye.

What is that thing doing here? How did someone manage to pick you up and carry you here? The big yellow monster was sitting on my front porch. What will I do with it? Isn't this an anachronism? a relic of a by-gone age, never to return?

Yes, the latest edition of the Yellow Pages has arrived. Will this year's contribution again be useful as a doorstop? Last year's still functioned correctly yesterday -- how many do I need? 2,800 yellow pages! (Do they print them yellow so you don't notice the cheap paper yellowing naturally after a few weeks? One year I left it in the sun for a couple of hours and it all -- including the print -- went a pale brown.)

Telephone Directories have a long history, almost as old as the telephone itself. Alexander Graham Bell, who was granted a patent on his telephone in 1876, installed the first telephone exchange, in New Haven, Connecticut. The first "telephone book" was only just a single page. It was issued in 1878. The listing was divided into the following categories: Residences (11), Physicians (3), Dentists (2), Miscellaneous (8) and Stores, Factories, &c (25). There were no phone numbers in the listing, just the names of the subscribers -- the operator (remember Jenny in Lassie?) connected you to the other party using a patchboard, the phone listing being published as a reference informing you of whom you could contact by telephone (if your were fortunate enough to have access to one yourself).

The first "phone book" in Efrat was also only a single page. But it had phone numbers, all three digits of it. As everyone's phone number began "931-", they left this part of the number off the list. Our number was 427. This list was distributed by the local council. That was 1985. In 1988, Yakir Hameiri and I produced a phone for Efrat and Alon Shvut at the behest of Uri Dassberg. Each year after that, Yakir and I produced a book ourselves, extending it to cover the whole of Gush Etzion and later Kiryat Arba, Hebron and the South Har Hevron region. My wife, Jill Yaffa, took it over after the first few years and transformed it into its present format.

Worldwide, phone books are given out to the public for free, the expense of publication being borne by the advertising. That hasn't changed in the "new" technological world -- most of the Internet (like this site) is "sponsored" by commercials.

Back to the golden monstrosity on my doorstep . . . what would I do with it if I were to take it inside? By the time I let it in, its information is far out-of-date. While that was probably also true in New Haven in 1878, the difference today is that the latest, contemporary information, is already available, right now, within the walls my house. They've only left me one book (the poor fellow who schlepped it here had enough trouble with one, I'm sure), but the all information in it is available on-line in about eight locations around my house, some of them portable; all the desktop computers, my laptop, cell phones, ipod . . . . And while the book is far from portable (around the house let alone in the street), the other information sources are accessible by everyone everywhere, anywhere.

Internet data sources give you more than just addresses and phone numbers. The data device can dial for you (the device may even be a telephone), they can display a map or aerial photograph of the subscriber's location (or a neat combination of the two) with instructions to get there by car, foot or public transport -- often each via a different route. If the phone owner is on a mobile device, my system gives me a GPS-generated moving image of where the phone is being taken -- a great feature if it is stolen or you want to take your friend out for coffee -- a lousy feature if you elope with the girl down the lane.

Today, the commercial section can be searched in many ways -- no more having to know that the Yellow Pages classifies medical doctors as physicians, or plumbers, under "Building, see contractors, see pipe and sewage installers and repairers". And how confusing it is when you get used to their "strange" categorization and then they decide that this year they have "better" system.

All of the above is true for any directory. It's a dead technology. Books are too, or at least dying. So why are people still using it? There are a few reasons. People still find it easier to pick up a bound book and turn the pages -- it gives them a nice warm feeling -- how many years after the development of book binding did it take the scroll to go the way of the dodo?; they (the older generation?) grew up with it and are used to it (will Amazon's Kindle replace the book as we know it?); advertisers believe the "traditional" method of getting the message across still works (does it?). But traditional publishers who can see the future are moving their publications to the digital era.

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