“My problem is that I have
been persecuted by an integer. For seven years this number has followed me
around, has intruded in my most private data, and has assaulted me from the
pages of our most public journals.”–George Miller
George Miller, at that time, a cognitive psychologist at Harvard, was
referring to the number seven. The quote comes from his seminal paper entitled “The Magical Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two: Some Limits
on our Capacity for Processing Information,” which was published in the Psychological Review, in 1956. Among the
most cited papers in psychology circles, this paper generated one the biggest
urban legends in popular psychology; namely that 7 digits is the most an
average person can retain in working memory. According to the legend, this is the
reason that telephone numbers contain seven digits.
Now debunked, including by Miller himself,
this finding continues to be cited as fact. (See for example, this ABC News story from 2009). Later versions of
this story reduced the amount of digits that can be remembered to 3 or 4, which
accounts for the reason why phone numbers are written as a combination of 3 and
4 numbers e.g. 555-1212 and why important numbers are three digits long, like
911 and 411.
Any way you slice it, numbers
are hard to remember. Since the early days of telephony, people have been
looking to find a way to simplify phone numbers. Starting in 1930, two letters were
used to represent a local exchange, so that phone numbers became two letter and
five numbers (like KLondik5-5555). Later
developments included using the alphabet to create mnemonics for phone numbers,
such as 1(800)CAR-PETS that helped people remember business numbers. Today, we
have come up with a host of personal solutions.
Most people create personal contact lists that they store on a mobile
device–I mean, who honestly remembers all their family’s phone numbers anymore?
At work, business phone systems offer ‘short codes’ for commonly-dialed numbers
and ‘dial by name’ functionality to help employees locate colleagues without
cracking open the corporate directory. But these are all homegrown efforts to alleviate
a lingering problem…namely, reaching people by phone without having to remember
a long list of numbers.
The fact that we are still
using 7-digits (actually 10-digits now) to reach people 130+ years after
telephony was invented is truly surprising.
It’s odd that nobody has figured out way to create a centrally-located name
directory, like the Internet DNS ‘domain name’ resolvers. It would be awfully strange
to contact a company on the Internet by typing their IP address into your browser–can you imagine entering addresses like 192.168.0.0 to reach a company’s
website? But that is exactly what we do by phone.
Truth is, I never really
thought about it; but I recently heard about a company that is trying to change
the way we dial. The company, CallMyName,* has
introduced a global ‘name resolution’ service. You register your name with them, like you would a domain name on the
Internet–and from here on out, everyone with the CallMyName app will be able to reach
you by phone, by searching for your name in their directory. Even if you change your contact details, you can still be reached by the same name.
It’s a clever idea; the company seems to be initially
targeting local businesses that rely heavily on phone traffic for generating business, which
makes sense. Businesses pay a yearly
registration fee, just like for domain name registrations. Private individuals
register for free.
*Author Dave Lavenda has no
relationship with, or stake in CallMyName. Lavenda is a
high tech marketing and product strategy executive who also does academic research on the
effects of information overload on organizations. He is an international
scholar for the Society for the History of Technology.
[Image: Flickr user Seattle Municiple Archives]