ASCII by Jason Scott

Jason Scott's Weblog

Twilight of the Area Code Master —

We know (or at least I hope we do) that skills once considered vital will eventually fall out of favor. Stuff that you could do well, maybe better than anyone you knew, eventually becomes something that has no opportunity for any use. Heartbreaking, I know. What’s worse is when it’s less a case of you not having the skill anymore because you’re too old, but because the world has shifted such that this skill has no relevance. Then you feel really old.

When one had a modem, you ended up calling a lot of places to get messages. You’d type in or dial some phone numbers, and then go to a BBS in that area. If you were paying for these long data-carrying calls, you’d probably not call much out of your area code. But if you were grabbing phone calls for free, like I was, then you’d be calling all over the country. And I did, with call counts in the thousands over the years.

So way back in my teens, I could tell you where an area code was. All of them. Tell me 404 and I’ll say Georgia, say 914 and that’s New York, 312 is Chicago, 206 is Washington. I’d see a phone number and I’d know where it was. If it was in my home area code, I’d see the first six numbers and know what town it was in.

The knowledge was forced into my head, like someone who walks the same path every day might memorize all the rocks along the side of the path or know the names on every mailbox. I called so many places, in so many states, that I just kind of knew them all by heart.

It helped a lot that there weren’t as many then. Area codes still had to conform to a rule that the first number was between 2 and 9, the second a 0 or 1, and the third 1-9. 305 (Florida) was obviously an area code. 230 was a typo. (Probably 203, Connecticut). You latched onto the pattern and there we went.

Area code splits have been around for a long time, with the first one happening a year after the creation of area codes in 1947. Before area codes, of course, you needed people; you’d call up and get an operator and they’d connect your call. Once machines got into the end-to-end, social misfits need never speak with a person; which was good if you were stealing the phone call. But the real area code splits of initial interest had all settled down by the 1980s and were somewhat rare. And each one begat another in the same realm: [2-9][01][1-9] as they say in regular expressions.

I should hasten for the benefit of phone nerds that there were, of course, area codes like 710 and 310, but they weren’t for the places one would call with BBSes. And yes, there was 800 and 900 and even my beloved 700, but again, these weren’t for locations; they were crazy mysterious places far outside the realm of reason. So this talent was able to keep up through the 1980s with no issue.

Once caller ID became more frequent, I could glance at it and see who was calling me. I’d see a 818 and know it was California or 503 and know it was Oregon and make choices based on that. This talent was kind of innate, there, just something I had.

But then things got weird.

510 in 1991 ruined things. A California area code, it broke the magic formula. Luckily, these were few and far between, like 410 when it popped up in Maryland a couple years later. I adjusted. But by this time I was in my 20s and I was making a lot less phone calls than I had in the BBS era. I was on the Internet now.

In 1995, 334 broke it for good. An area code for Alabama, the magic formula was gone. It scanned as an exchange for me, as it did for a lot of switching equipment. It might be hard to imagine now for the younger set, but there was a time when this actually cut off parts of the country. Older switching systems (especially ones inside schools or businesses) couldn’t call these numbers. It broke them utterly. Phone switches were thrown out or finally upgraded by the truckload. Now that there were tons of crappy telecommunications vendors, upgrades to these systems were fast and furious. And my skills became less and less useful, although the older businesses, ones that had had numbers for many years, still made sense to me and when someone called from 505, I knew it was New Mexico.

Recently, though, two things have happened.

First of all, numbers are portable. I have switched my phone with three providers and kept the numbers. Many others have too. You can be calling a number that the person answering won’t even be in the same state as where the number “should” be. They’ve jumped around and ended up somewhere other than the natural resting place of the number, and that’s that.

And the final nail has been the addition of voice over IP. When you use this, your phone is hooked to your computer. For many people, they have an inward number, but when you call, it uses the nearest geographic “place” to where you’re calling. So, to the person getting the call, your number is totally different from where you are. This is happening more and more. What’s interesting is how all these companies with clever number-scanners that allow them to make decisions based on the callers location are now broken. I’ve used VOIP phones and been hailed from Syracuse, or given California directions, or so on. The times have truly passed me by.

Once I could stand there and recite these numbers and their locations with the greatest pride. They were my geography teacher and my sage-like awareness of the lands around me. But those times are gone.

I wonder what other skills I’ve lost, time having passed them so completely I’ve forgotten about them. I’ll alert you if I remember.

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  1. Andy Baio says:

    I was born in 818, grew up in 805, went to college in 510, and my son was born in the 310. And like you said, that was my last area code. I moved from Santa Monica to Palo Alto to Portland, keeping my cell phone number along the way. We don’t even have a landline anymore.

  2. en_dash says:

    You know also that the original area code schema was based on rotary phones, so that more ‘important’ places would have less ‘clicks’ on their rotary phone than less important places (e.g., 212 for NYC = 5 clicks; 307 for Wyoming = 20 clicks). I’ve always used this to prove that my home state of NH (603) was considered more important than our rival, Vermont (802) by 1 click.

  3. thomas says:

    great post… 234 is supposed to be coming to northeast ohio, which would make the number 1-234, that is if we still used 1, as that seems to be going by the wayside too. i worked for an isp briefly during the 216 split with 330, and irate customers would call in that had put a 1 in front and were subsequently charged the full inter-lata long-distance rate for their multiple hours of time online. this gave me a dark feeling in my stomach about phone companies (and other companies) that hasn’t gone away. think of the profit from the float of those mistakes, alone.

  4. steph says:

    While my history is somewhat the same as yours (numbers geek first, phones later), I don’t know any valid phone numbers anymore, except my own mobile and my partner’s. I back up the phone book from my mobile most of the time. I expect one day I’ll be seriously caught out, but not yet.

    I live in Amsterdam, and I’ve got my voip incoming lines in +44 and +1 360

    I wrote real letters to real people once too.

  5. So, I work for a company that processes large amounts of telephone data and this data is, amazingly, still relevant. It’s relevancy is slowly dying (maybe faster now that my 60 year old parents recently ported their numbers to cell phones, which I consider a sign of the apocalypse), but I await the coming reorganization of all phones not based on geography, since, like IP addresses, it’s increasingly wrong when used for that purpose.

  6. Flack O'Hara says:

    As I covered in an old blog posting (which spam protection seems to be preventing me from linking to) I discussed how this knowledge skill was lost now that I can Google for an area code when my phone begins to ring, and have the information in front of me before the answering machine picks up on the fourth ring. If that isn’t what the Internet was invented for, I don’t know what is.

    And speaking of arcane talents, I used to be able to whistle a “sweeping tone” that would turn off a modem. Back in the days of modems and BBSes, many times a modem would spit out a tone when the two parties had intended a voice-to-voice call. I found that a loud enough whistle, sweeping from low to high, would trick a modem into turning itself off. I have no idea what the tone was or technically what was going on behind the scenes, only that if done loud enough, the modem would shut up. There aren’t a lot of social situations in which one can show off that particular trick off anymore.

    Speaking of which, I knew dozens (and still knew a few) of “payphone tricks” that could be done to win and influence friends. Now that AT&T has announced that they will be phasing out payphones at the end of this year (2008), I suspect those tricks will go out of vogue as well.

  7. Peter Coffin says:

    On the other hand, with 10-digit dialing and overlays so common these days, more people think area codes … if they have to actually dial the number at all and not pick from a list.

    I used to have a Boston number like 633-3333. The phone rang ALL THE TIME – crazies would call and leave rants about the local spa and babies would call us several times a week leaving long babbling messages – all that stopped when 10-digit dialing started being required.

  8. don't worry says:

    there’s never been anything ‘sage-like’ about you.

  9. Flack says:

    Nor Parsley-like, Rosemary-like, or Thyme-like, for that matter.