When technology augments the natural limits of human communication, there are often unexpected side effects. When Sharp first decided to bundle together a phone and a camera into the same device, they didn’t know they’d laid the foundation for Instagram, or the rich visual ecosystem of mobile content. At the time, uploading images to the internet in a community of users was 10 years away. Similarly, when Casio created the first commercially successful answering machine capable of playing an outgoing message in 1971, they didn’t realize that they had effectively given a broadcasting platform to the answering machine owners.
The kind of communication that answering machines enable was so new at the time that it posed a fresh philosophical question about what it means for a caller to hear messaging like “I am (not) here now”, when the terms “here” and “now” are technologically abstracted from their traditional context. Writing in 1989, linguistics philosopher David Kaplan suggested that the advent of answering machine messages forced the meaning of “now” to fork into two branches: the now of the recorder, and the now of the listener.
Any technology that brings the basic rules of language into question is signalling a change in the way our brains work when asynchronous communication becomes common. Now, in the age where synchronous communication is becoming rare (how often do we choose to voice call rather than DM?), we’ve learned to accept “here” and “now” as abstract, context-dependent terms that litter our timelines and refer to a “now” of the past, and a “here” that is likely no longer true.
Answering machines spawned many new phenomena, but also predicted the behavior of people who have a platform for one-to-many asynchronous communication; in the 70s, it was answering machine messages, now it’s social media. Representing a sort of home broadcasting system that anyone could use to relay messages to callers, the kinds of outgoing messages recorded by owners are similar to the way many people use social media soapboxes. Ruby Goldberg, writing in Discourse Processes in 1991, offers an explanation:
“Among many owners, the more personal sounding and creative the message, the more likely they feel they are able to get people to respond and leave a message in turn. Callers, as well, feel more obligated to interact with the machine by leaving a message, rather than hanging up because they prefer to talk with a live interlocutor.”
While mundane in practice, this “technological solution to the problem of availability” is a catalyst for academic riddles and philosophical wordplay. It also provides a platform for creativity and self-expression.
A cursory internet search shows that the topic of answering machine messages is closely tied to humor; most articles are lists of text snippets you can recite, or audio files you can load into your answering machine. Other than messages specifically for business purposes, I didn’t find a single sincere example.
“Leave your message after the beep or you will be assimilated”, rasps one .wav file found on a garish Web 1.0 page, the voice obscured with swirling modulation and fuzzy sci-fi ambience.
“Here comes the tone, leave your message”, sings Lawrence Savell to the tune of Here Comes the Sun in a homemade answering machine message tape from the early 80s that he has since ripped and uploaded to his website. Those who didn’t have the same creative inclinations could even buy cassettes of pre-recorded messages, like Get the Message! and Crazy Calls. The Crazy Calls tape came with 7 “funny recordings for answering machines” for the price of $15; buyers could choose messages with Christmas or Thanksgiving themes, or opt for recordings in various music genres like hip-hop or rock ’n’ roll.
The answering machine’s impact can be seen most clearly in pop culture from the ‘90s. One notable recording on Crazy Calls uses the lyrics “nobody’s here” to the tune of Beethoven’s Fifth. An almost-identical copy of this track can be heard satirized on The Simpsons. Similarly, a 1997 episode of Seinfeld runs with the theme of novelty answering machine messages, poking fun at the gap between the machine owner’s comedy intentions and the end user’s frustration.
For those born after the answering machine’s glory days, these television relics could be the only narrow window into an age where consumers were given a few seconds of freedom to broadcast messages to those who knew their number. What happened next was basically a proof-of-concept for social media. It showed that we’re all hungry to create, broadcast, and stretch the boundaries of the format.
In a brief email exchange with Lawrence Savell, I was told that there was once a thriving scene of creators recording and exchanging custom answering machine messages. What once caused a flurry of excitement soon becomes obsolete. What once distorted the meaning of words like “here” and “now” becomes commonplace on the internet. The ancestor of the status update is now a nugget of nostalgic comedy, its nuances eroded by time.