The days of the phone book – along with print media, phone booths and landline telephones – are numbered.
Leland Yee, one of San Francisco's state senators, is responsible for much worthwhile immigration and domestic violence legislation, as well as mandatory ski helmets for children. This month he's planning to introduce a bill prohibiting telephone companies from sending customers unsolicited white pages. White pages are residential listings, yellow pages commercial: neither name is protected by copyright so
anyone can publish them.
California law, like New York law, currently states that all telephone customers – everyone with a landline – must receive a phone book; an initiative no doubt proposed by lobbyists in order to make advertising in the yellow pages more attractive. Every year piles of phone books are dumped in the hallway of my apartment block, just below the buzzers. They rot there for months, pillows for the homeless, until the superintendent rouses himself and trashes them.
The chief opponent of compulsory distribution is White Pages Inc., America's leading online directory and the force behind banthephonebook.org. Phone book supporters say that White Pages Inc. – which built its database in the first place by digitising print white pages – wants to do away with the phone book it owes its existence to in order to boost its web traffic, not out of any ecological concern.
When I was 13 I used the Manhattan directory to try to call Philip Roth. I wanted to read him a story I'd written: boy, girl, loss of virginity in Jewish New Jersey. I made my way through a dozen P. Roths before one of them asked to speak to a parent. The lack of a centralised email or mobile phone directory makes tomorrow's Roths even more inaccessible for tomorrow's teenagers. But the loss of the phone book will be felt in other ways too: what will my child sit on to help him reach the dinner table? And what will the teenagers of 2020 try to tear in half when drunk – a laptop?