The AtlanticThe Atlantic

In praise of phone numbers

By Charlie Warzel

18 Jul 2023 · 5 min read

informed Summary

  1. Phone numbers, first introduced in 1879, remain a vital and reliable means of communication, despite the rise of digital communication methods. They serve as a link to the physical world and are often used as a means of authentication in digital systems.

Imagine for a moment a technology that is simple and universal, and needs no software updates. It is a string of numbers, each portion acting as a precise set of coordinates—so basic and elegant that your great-grandparents could use it. Put the numbers in the correct sequence and the technology immediately triggers a bit of magic: Where seconds ago there was silence and haptic nothingness, all of a sudden there is a glorious burst of sound or vibration miles, even continents, away. Then, if you’re lucky, you hear a voice, and you respond with yours: your questions, your frustrated pleas to speak with a “representative!”

The phone number has been with us in some form since 1879, and unlike carbon paper, VHS tapes, and the Walkman, it is not yet obsolete. Although there are dozens of ways to get in touch now, few are as durable and reliable as picking up the phone. A quick thought experiment: Say you just got in a fender bender or, God forbid, find yourself in a genuine emergency—would you text for help, or would you dial an emergency contact or 911? Although so much of our identities have migrated online, these sequences of numerals are an analog tie to the physical world. When we make an account or need to prove our identity to any given system of machines and networks, we use the string of numbers as a means of authentication.

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