Thanks to the smartphone era, dialing “0” and “411” means nothing on AT&T’s digital service
Want to feel old? Tell your grandchildren (or children if you’re young) that you used to use telephones that were connected by a wire to a jack in the wall. Tell them that you couldn’t put your phone in a pants pocket and bring it wherever you went. And you might even tell them that these phones didn’t have a screen and (horrors of horrors) there was no TikTok! And if you needed to get someone’s phone number, you couldn’t Google it or scroll through your contacts list.
AT&T ends 411 service for its digital phone service
But that wasn’t the case 100 years ago when the telephone operator was the person who connected calls, and passed along information. “The operator was the internet before the internet. There’s a wonderful circularity there,” said Josh Lauer, an associate professor of media studies at the University of New Hampshire. Throughout the 20th century, AT&T offered information to callers such as sports scores, weather forecasts, time and date, election results, and bus schedules. Doesn’t it sound like Google?
“Information” was renamed “directory assistance” in 1968
In her 2019 book about the history of telephone operators, Emma Goodmann said about operators, “Telephone users interpreted her as an efficient way to locate any information.” In those days, operators would be asked questions like how to get a squirrel out of the house. In 1968, AT&T changed the name of the service from “information” to “directory assistance.”
In an ad AT&T ran in 1968, the company explained why it made the name change: “When she was called ‘information,’ people kept calling her for the wrong reasons. Now we call her ‘directory assistance’ in the hope that you’ ll call her only for numbers you can’t find in the phone book.” The number of operators in the system peaked at 420,000 in the 1970s. By 2021, that figure was down to less than 4,000.
David McGarty, the president of US Directory Assistance, says that calls to operators have declined 3% a year and by 90% since he started in 1996. McGarty says, “We’re content with riding the Titanic down.”