Efficiency the reason we have the telephone button layout we have today

Bell Labs made a number of important discoveries decades ago including making the choice of how telephone buttons should be laid out:

This layout is so standardized that we barely think about it. But it was, in the 1950s, the result of a good deal of strategizing and testing on the part of people at Bell Labs. Numberphile has dug up an amazing paper — published in the July 1960 issue of “The Bell System Technical Journal” — that details the various alternative designs the Bell engineers considered. Among them: “the staircase” (II-B in the image above), “the ten-pin” (III-B, reminiscent of bowling-pin configurations), “the rainbow” (II-C), and various other versions that mimicked the circular logic of the existing dialing technology: the rotary.

Everything was on the table for the layout of the ten buttons; the researchers’ only objective was to find the configuration that would be as user-friendly, and efficient, as possible. So they ran tests. They experimented. They sought input. They briefly considered a layout that mimicked a cross.

And in the end, though, Numberphile’s Sarah Wiseman notes, it became a run-off between the traditional calculator layout and the telephone layout we know today. And the victory was a matter of efficiency. “They did compare the telephone layout and the calculator layout,” she says, “and they found the calculator layout was slower.”

It is interesting that they searched for what was most efficient. This is not surprising; telephones are pieces of technology and the user is likely to want to dial the number as quickly as possible so they can get on with the phone call. But, efficiency isn’t necessarily everything. Imagine Steve Jobs and Apple, an organization known for their designs, made this initial choice: would they have chosen something more elegant or would they have selected efficiency as well? It is a small thing yet it hints at George Ritzer’s McDonaldization thesis where efficient and rational approaches tend to win out in our world.

A side note: Bell Labs should be better known in the United States for their role in developing new technologies.

The McDonaldization of TED

Wired looks at the spread of TED around the world:

Free online access is just one of two major initiatives that TED has undertaken to engage a wider audience. The other is fully physical and has equally changed the character of the organization. That initiative, called TEDx, began in 2008 as a way to bring TED-like gatherings to smaller communities. It quickly spread to cities and towns around the globe—1,300 so far, in 134 countries, hosting more than 800,000 people in total, many times more than have ever attended an official TED event. The video viewing I attended at the Bozeman library was not some random screening; it was an overflow simulcast of the inaugural TEDxBozeman, which had sold out its tickets in six days. Each event is required to show at least two videos from TED.com, but the rest of the speakers are in person, often local, creating a TED-style experience for places where “ideas conference” isn’t even part of the lexicon.

TED does place some restrictions on the independent organizers. The TEDx logo renders the x like an asterisk, with a tagline below that reads “x = independently organized TED event.” But in practice, TED has put its entire reputation in the hands of these organizers, if only because they’re so entrepreneurial and so plugged into their communities. These local showrunners recruit speakers unknown to TED central and coach them on how to present their ideas. The resulting one-day conferences draw huge crowds. For most of the world now, and even for most of the United States, these events are TED.

Chris Anderson (no relation to the editor of this magazine), a former media executive who has run TED since 2001, sees both TEDx and TED.com as in keeping with a larger philosophy of “radical openness.” But putting media online is a standard practice, whereas these satellite events have taken Anderson into entirely uncharted territory: He has given his nationally known brand away to thousands of complete unknowns, spawning independent TED events in cities and towns all around the world. Can “big ideas” really cover that much ground?

This piece praises TED for this move – here is the concluding paragraph:

As gauzy as this may sound, there really is some idea that underpins whatever it is that each of us does, and there’s some narrative (whether our own or someone else’s) that helps convey it to others. By bringing speakers out of their specialties, by teaching them to talk to everyone, TEDxes are helping speakers connect with audiences, and helping audiences in turn to connect ideas inside their own minds. That is, they’re adding to our store of stories—and it’s hard to think of a much better reason to get together than that.

I can’t help think of George Ritzer’s analysis of McDonaldization. As the headline for the article suggests, TED has become a franchise. And with franchising and a global spread, Ritzer argued these traits come to dominate organizations:

  • Efficiency – the optimal method for accomplishing a task. In this context, Ritzer has a very specific meaning of “efficiency”. In the example of McDonald’s customers, it is the fastest way to get from being hungry to being full. Efficiency in McDonaldization means that every aspect of the organization is geared toward the minimization of time.
  • Calculability – objective should be quantifiable (e.g., sales) rather than subjective (e.g., taste). McDonaldization developed the notion that quantity equals quality, and that a large amount of product delivered to the customer in a short amount of time is the same as a high quality product. This allows people to quantify how much they’re getting versus how much they’re paying. Organizations want consumers to believe that they are getting a large amount of product for not a lot of money. Workers in these organizations are judged by how fast they are instead of the quality of work they do.
  • Predictability – standardized and uniform services. “Predictability” means that no matter where a person goes, they will receive the same service and receive the same product every time when interacting with the McDonaldized organization. This also applies to the workers in those organizations. Their tasks are highly repetitive, highly routine, and predictable.
  • Control – standardized and uniform employees, replacement of human by non-human technologies
  • Culture – As a part of standardization, cultural hybridization occurs. As McDonald’s enters a country, consumer patterns are unified and starting with the food chains, local cultures are westernized.

Maybe TED is a bit different because it is about ideas and the content of the different talks could vary widely between Bozeman, Montana and Indonesia. This article also suggests the parent organization isn’t completely controlling everything on the other end. At the same time, I imagine attendees have some idea of what kind of product a TED conference is and they expect to have a particular kind of experience. What happens if the product at the local level, particularly when comparing a local TEDx conference versus the larger official TED talks, doesn’t compare? Even though the conferences are about ideas, do the ideas tend to clump together in certain fields or ways of viewing the world? The trick here is to balance a consistently good TED experience with new ideas that push attendees to see the world in new ways, all while avoiding becoming just another global brand or product.

Studying the declining use of nicknames in sports

Nicknames for professional athletes are on the decline – and there are academics to prove it:

But most famous athletes are now best known by their given name. The Yankees won generations of championships with men known as Babe, Iron Horse, Joltin’ Joe, Scooter, Yogi, Catfish and Mr. October. More recently, they won with players named Derek, Mariano and Andy. Alex Rodriguez — A-Rod — has what passes for a nickname these days.

The sociologist James Skipper, author of “Baseball Nicknames: A Dictionary of Origins and Meanings,” found that the use of nicknames peaked before 1920. It has since been in steady decline, dropping quickly in the 1950s.

Using a baseball encyclopedia listing all major league players from 1871 to 1968, Skipper found that 28.1 percent of players had nicknames not derived from their given names. (Lefty, Red and Doc were most popular.) No doubt the percentage has since dipped precipitously.

“The era of the colorful nickname may be over,” Skipper concluded about 30 years ago…

“Their own names now act as brand names,” said Frank Neussel, editor of Names: A Journal of Onomastics, and a University of Louisville professor of modern language and linguistics. “Your identity is not your nickname. It’s your stats.”

I’ve always heard old-timers talk about this downturn in sports nicknames and I have found it difficult to understand what the big fuss is about.

Based on what is said here, here is one possible sociological explanation for this trend: athlete’s names have become McDonaldized in the interest of efficiency and marketing. Single given names, like Shaq or Tiger, seem to be best. More whimsical nicknames might detract from what really is important now: endorsements and championships (which also happen to lead to more endorsements).

Perhaps the litmus test for the average sports fan today is what they think of Chris Berman’s insistence on using crazy nicknames. Since I tend to find him bearable, perhaps this indicates I’m not ready just yet to give up on the more joyful side of sports.

And what do the athletes themselves think of this shift?

The sociological origin of the term “McJob”

With McDonald’s hiring 62,000 employees on April 19, a journalist looks at the sociological origins of the term “McJobs“:

The term McJob first appeared in the summer of 1986, when George Washington University sociology professor Amitai Etzioni wrote a column for the Washington Post decrying the “highly routinized” jobs at fast-food restaurants and their effect on American teens.

“By nature, these jobs undermine school attendance and involvement, impart few skills that will be useful in later life, and simultaneously skew the values of teenagers -especially their ideas about the worth of a dollar,” Etzioni wrote.

He went on to criticize the culture and routine of working at McDonald’s and other fast-food companies, noting that the jobs do not provide opportunity for entrepreneurship like the traditional lemonade stand, or the lessons of self-organization, self-discipline and self-reliance like the traditional paper route.

“True, you still have to have the gumption to get yourself over to the hamburger stand, but once you don the prescribed uniform, your task is spelled out in minute detail,” he argued. “There is no room for initiative creativity or even elementary rearrangements. These are breeding grounds for robots working for yesterday’s assembly lines, not tomorrow’s high-tech posts.”

The article then goes on to describe how McDonald’s has tried to fit back against the term, including a 2007 from “the British arm of the company…to get the Oxford English Dictionary definition changed.”

On one hand, such jobs may not be great and this is what Etzioni was getting at: they generally are low-paying and in many places don’t pay enough to be considered a “living wage.” A work like Nickel and Dimed (a review of the theater version here) portrayed such employees as having difficult lifestyles and little hope for the future. More broadly, we could think of these jobs as emblematic of a larger process of McDonaldization, coined by sociologist George Ritzer, that describes the rationalization of the modern world.

On the other hand, we live in a country that really pays attention to job reports with less interest in what kinds of jobs were actually created. The April jobs figures showed good jobs growth but we could inquire about the quality of these jobs: are they well-paying, sustainable jobs that will pay American workers for decades to come? Or, were the majority of jobs middling to lower-skilled jobs that serve American consumers in the service industry?

In the end, we have a society that is quite dependent on such “McJobs.” The term is unlikely to go away though it clearly applies to a lot more corporations and areas than simply McDonald’s. Just as Walmart tends to get singled out as emblematic of big box stores and suburban sprawl because of its revenue (still at the top of the Fortune 500), McDonald’s size and influence draws attention (Super Size Me, anyone?). But as a society, we could have larger and ongoing discussions about what kind of jobs we wish to hold and to promote. In these discussions, we need corporations like McDonald’s, Walmart, Starbucks, Apple, and others involved to think about the American future.