The way we were

By Razib Khan | April 10, 2012 1:43 am

I found out today that a private equity firm has purchased the majority of the Yellow Pages from AT&T. Which prompts me to ask: when was the last time you used the yellow pages? A pay phone? In a similar vein, Google And The Death Of Getting Lost. In 10 years (2001 to 2011) wireless penetration in the USA went from ~40 percent to ~100 percent.* This is the difference between arranging a rendezvous ahead of time in precise detail, and being confident that you can just end it with “I’ll call you.”

Image credit: Wikipedia

* This is actually calculated by comparing the number of phones to people. Since some people have multiple phones, and businesses purchase them for their employees, “real” penetration is somewhat less than this. I suspect that it is a larger underestimate for 2001, as a larger proportion of phones were probably business-related.

MORE ABOUT: Technology
  • Darkseid

    I finally threw my phone book away last month. My phone was so slow i felt it was still just as fast if i didn’t have a computer handy. Now with my new Samsung Note i can just speak into my phone without even having to type anything. The technology is pretty amazing and once Google glasses come out it’ll be even better. For anyone who is wondering, the voice command tech finally actually works and it is pretty impressive. No more texting or typing (especially while driving) is necessary.

    Fwiw Erin Gray was one of my first crushes. Man, that Buck Rogers was a lucky guy:)

  • Icepick

    I don’t remember the last time I used a pay phone, but I clearly remember the last time I tried to use one. It was during a snowstorm in early 2001 in Baltimore Maryland. My wife and I only had one car at the time, and she drove me to and from the Reisterstown subway station each work day. That afternoon I got back to the station on the way home and my cell phone had died. (If they still put hand cranks on phones like back in the day…. Find an ap for THAT.) So I had to use the pay phone – which was broken.

    I have used the Yellow Pages within the last month. Frankly I can make faster use of the Yellow Pages when I know what I’m looking for but don’t remember the name of the establishment. Just go to the type and scan the addresses.

    I freely admit that I am a technoloigical dinosaur, however, and quickly headed to extinction.

  • S.J. Esposito

    At 24, I don’t think I’ve ever used a phone book in my life… not once. I have use payphones a few times and the last time I used one was probably at least 6 or 7 years ago.

  • pconroy

    I last used the Yellow Pages about 15 years ago.

    I haven’t had a telco landline for about 5 years.

  • Polynices

    Why I used a phone book just the other day… to weight down some papers that I’d glued so they’d dry flat. They’re great for that (science textbooks work too, though).

  • dcwarrior

    I use the white pages sometimes. It can be faster if you are looking for a particular person in your neighborhood. If you use a search engine you get any number of white page websites and then you have to navigate them to be sure you have the right person and get their number.

  • marcel

    Used a phone book this morning and the yellow pages yesterday. But then, not only am I middle aged, I live in semi-rural northern New England, and until about 5 years ago there was no cell phone service at my house. No local or cable TV available either, just satellite. My wife’s AT&T iphone barely works at home, although it works fine in town a few miles away. I have a dumb cell phone (Verizon, 8 years old that can send & receive calls and txt messages only, maybe play minesweeper) that I use only for when I am on road trips or in a city. I expect to be dug up from a tar pit in about 100K years.

  • Bee

    We have the yellow pages under the short leg of the table. Also, they make good children toys. More seriously, I’ve found that they are still handy to have around here because a lot of smaller stores and services don’t have websites (or have websites that are so crappy you wish they wouldn’t have them). Last time I used a payphone was in early 2004.

  • Dm

    There is at least one place in the US where a payphone is the way because there is no cell coverage. It is the Phantom Ranch at the bottom of Grand Canyon. I keep an AT&T prepaid long-distance phone card just for that one place. The card is very worn but still has a few bucks on it, and the pin is still legible. Last time used a year ago. Hey they even have a line waiting for the payphone every now and then … recreating life as it used to be!

  • Anthony

    Pay phones started disappearing in the 1990s, as part of the “War on Drugs”. Dealers would use a pay phone as their incoming line, and chase away anyone else who tried to use the phone. The cops would then ask the phone company to remove the pay phone. At about the same time, lots of off-brand payphones started to show up, which usually charged more than PacBell, and which defaulted to some *really* expensive long-distance carrier, and would almost always fail if you tried to get your long-distance carrier. Both these changes probably helped drive cell-phone adoption.

  • Violet

    Less than a year ago, I used both pay phones and yellow pages. I was glad that these things still exist when you are tight for money and can’t pre-pay the cell phone till next paycheck, or run to the nearest library for internet access at odd times.

    While travelling, at every airport I use a pay phone instead of super-mega-expensive roaming charges or switching providers and phones for appropriate SIM cards (between countries, that is).

    Also, I just want to say here that Heathrow sucks. Almost every other decent international airport I have been through had a free wifi.

  • Icepick

    pconroy, I had been very reluctant to get rid of my telco land line after going through three hurricanes in six weeks in 2004. Our landline was the only service we didn’t lose for at least a few days. The cell towers were down for a good week or so. I’ve finally just bundled it up with my cable service, but I’m gambling we don’t get any more hurricanes for some time.

    Shorter: The land lines are still more robust in cases of natural disasters.


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About Razib Khan

I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. In relation to nationality I'm a American Northwesterner, in politics I'm a reactionary, and as for religion I have none (I'm an atheist). If you want to know more, see the links at


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