Illustrated by Gabriela Alford.
Depending on how you feel about the complex history of North American telephony, Megan Garber's evolution of the area code for The Atlantic may or may not be the most interesting thing you read all weekend.
Before the advent of area codes, you would simply inform your human telephone operator of the geographical area in which other callers lived, along with their five-digit number. With the rapid growth of the national phone system, however, Bell engineers were eager to automate everything and turn place names into numbers.
But, history aside — and a fascinating history it is, one filled with anger and fears about the creeping, cold efficacy of technological automation, which even resulted in a thousand-member-strong "Anti-Digit Dialing League" — one of the most interesting aspects of Garber's article is her observation of how we relate to our own area codes.
"I am an 831," she writes, "wherever I may be in body, and will remain an 831 until they pry those three otherwise totally meaningless digits out of my cold, dead iPhone."
That might sound like something out of George Lucas' dystopian sci-fi film THX 1138, but she considers those numbers to be part of her identity, referring not just to her phone but to her geographical origins. "The rise of monthly cell service, with its flattening of the national phone grid, transformed the area code from an economic signal into a purely cultural one," Garber writes, "and one that has the ever-more-rare virtue of connecting its owner to a physical place."
As a person who has retained a 925 area code after moving to New York over a decade ago, I can concur that there is something about those digits that is difficult to give up; it is one of a few palpable indicators I still have of my California heritage. Garber quotes communications scholar James Katz, who once said, "When we are assigned an area code we do not like, it feels like a loss of place or position in society." That position means class status: Manhattan's 212, for example, is generally considered superior to 718 and 917. (Say nothing of 347 or 646.)