Crossed Wires: Literature and Telephony

Lead Research Organisation: Nottingham Trent University
Department Name: Sch of Arts and Humanities


In a letter to Paul Auster, J.M. Coetzee (2013) argues that the mobile phone creates significant structural difficulties for the writer: 'If people ... are continually going to be speaking to one another at a distance, then a whole gamut of interpersonal signs and signals, verbal and non-verbal, voluntary and involuntary, has to be given up. Dialogue ... just isn't possible'. The implications of the telephone for the literary text, however, extend far beyond this, and although the effect of the telephone on narrative structure has long been acknowledged by writers such as Coetzee, the wider cultural, political and textual implications of failed and interrupted communication - of crossed wires, phone-hacking and missed calls - remain neglected in literary scholarship. My 20-month research project (equivalent to 16 months FT) addresses this deficiency by exploring the ways that the telephone has been conceived by writers from the 19th century to the present day. Its aim is to think creatively and critically about the co-emergence of the human and the machine by exploring the relationship between telephony and Anglophone literature from across the globe.

The project will result in a monograph, Crossed Wires: Literature and Telephony, which will provide a sustained analysis of the effects of telephony on the literary text. Examining how the telephone has transformed reading and writing practices, it will explore the impact of developing telephone technologies on drama, fiction, poetry and non-fiction by a wide range of authors including Ali (1987), Carson (2009), Cocteau (1930), Greene (1978), Hurt (2016), Shamsie (2009), Spark (1959), Twain (1889) and Waugh (1930). The analysis will pay particular attention to the possibilities for technology to destabilise relations of presence and absence, near and far, and life and death; in so doing, it will draw on critical work by Agamben, Cixous, Derrida, Ronell and Szendy. While considerable research in telephony has been undertaken in media and film studies, its impact on the development of reading and writing practices remains neglected. Moreover, existing studies on telephony in critical theory date back to the 1980s. This monograph is timely; performing the effects of telephony on language and form, it will interrogate the telephone's role and representation in light of recent mobile, cellular and smartphone technologies.

In a culture of heightened auditory surveillance and increased public awareness of the impact of smartphone technologies on public health and modes of interpersonal communication, this research has far-reaching significance beyond the academy. Unique to this cross-disciplinary project is a collaboration with the Science Museum, whose world-class resources include significant collections on global developments in telecommunications, and the BT Archives, the repository of the world's oldest communications company. Building on my experience as an award-winning poet, scholar and broadcaster, and working in collaboration with a range of research partners, this project incorporates a number of innovative activities including (i) an international 'Festival of the Phone' at the Science Museum, (ii) a Dial-a-Poem mobile app developed with the support of the National Poetry Library, (iii) a radio feature on telephony drawing on the collections at the BT Archives and Science Museum, (iv) a new collection of literary resources at BT Archives and online exhibition; and (v) a writing workshop series with the Youth Justice Service exploring forms of creative expression using smartphone technologies. Responding to current concerns surrounding telephone usage (e.g. text-speak, phone addiction, sexting), and contributing to high-profile scholarship in the field, this project brings together creative and critical approaches in order to investigate how our existing use of telecommunications can help us to find new ways of conceiving ethical and creative technological futures.

Planned Impact

In 1877, The Times reported: 'A time is coming when everybody, we presume, will carry his own Telephone about with him'; over a century later, GSMA Intelligence claimed that for the first time there were more telephones in the world than people (2014). Responding to continued growth in the market, diverse stakeholders have declared an investment in the social, political, cultural and economic impact of the telephone. This interest includes: reports by sociologists of 'nomophobia' (no-mobile-phone-phobia) (Yildirim 2014); statutory guidance by the Department for Education regarding mobile technology policies in schools (2015); the 'Snooper's Charter' (2016); and a government paper arguing for the UK's place as a global leader in mobile technologies (2017). Connecting a broad range of publics, our relationship with the telephone, the ways in which phone usage is monitored and controlled, and the implications of this for education, politics, economics, creativity, culture, health and well-being, ensures that this project has appeal for a broad range of non-academic beneficiaries.

This project aims to explore the possibilities of the telephone within contemporary cultures and communities. Maximising opportunities to engage audiences through collaboration with public-facing institutions and organisations, a range of innovative activities are embedded in the project design. Contributing to the AHRC's remit to 'increase the impact of arts and humanities research on cultural life and the UK's creative economy' ('The Human World', 2013), the project will focus on the impact of this research on (i) culture, (ii) society, and (iii) public services.

(i) Culture
Engaging different publics with the relationship between literature and technology and its effect on reading and writing practices, this project will inform debate regarding the cultural role of the telephone. It will contribute to the cultural sector by offering new opportunities to share and promote the creative possibilities of the telephone for schools, members of the public, writers, artists and other practitioners.
(ii) Society
Contributing to public debates regarding telephone usage, this project will increase awareness regarding the relationship between the human and the machine, focusing on the implications of telephony for connectivity, health and well-being, as well as the risks of reliance, misuse and decreased opportunities for face-to-face interaction.
(iii) Public Services
In light of social and educational concerns regarding mobile phone usage and its effects on interpersonal communication, the project will engage specific communities with creative and socially-responsible expression using multi-media platforms. This has the potential to inform guidance for practitioners undertaking literacy-based and creative activities within public services.

These impacts will be achieved through:
(i) A substantial 'Festival of the Phone' at the Science Museum; open to members of the public, it will feature international and interdisciplinary contributors, combining academic presentations with workshops and performances.
(ii) A 'Dial-a-Poem' mobile app developed in association with the National Poetry Library; this will promote poetry through new channels and invite members of the public to participate in the co-production of creative content.
(iii) Drawing on object collections at the BT Archives and Science Museum, a radio feature (with Cast Iron Radio) will raise awareness about the cultural and creative implications of telephony.
(iv) A writing workshop series with 11-18 year old females engaged with the Youth Justice Service will facilitate the use of mobile technologies to develop literacy and create new narratives of self-expression.
(v) A website, and associated online exhibition of the literary heritage of the telephone, linked to the BT Archives and promoted through project partners and social media, will ensure the sustainability of these impacts.


10 25 50
publication icon
Bostock C (2019) Between Calls: Together in the Garden in Parallax

publication icon
Bostock C (2019) Introduction: 'Who Could Ever Read This?' in Parallax

Description Sarah Jackson has shared her work through a range of media channels including a 'Free Thinking' programme on John Giorno's Dial-a-Poem service on BBC Radio 3, and an interview on BBC Radio 4's 'Today' programme. In particular, there was widespread coverage of Dr Jackson's research at the BT Archives in December 2018. In addition to disseminating details of her research and raising the public's awareness of archives, her findings have also been used to develop discussions about impact, collaboration and broadcasting. For instance, her research is featured as a case study on the AHRC's website:, which includes advice to researchers about working with broadcasters. Dr Jackson has also provided a short film/interview for use by the BT Archives during the 'Valuing Archives' conference at Henley Business School, University of Reading in March 2019; this includes a discussion of how archives and academic researchers can work together. She was also invited to discuss her work on public engagement at the 'Slavic Studies Goes Public' symposium at the University of St Andrews in January 2020; in addition to members of the academic community, the audience included creative practitioners, third sector organisations and members of the public.
First Year Of Impact 2018
Sector Creative Economy,Culture, Heritage, Museums and Collections
Impact Types Cultural,Societal

Description Engaged: Public Humanities on the Phone 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Other audiences
Results and Impact Jackson was invited to present her research on telephony and public engagement at 'Slavic Studies Goes Public' (23-24 January 2020) held at Bell Pettigrew Museum, the University of St Andrews. Her talk was open to members of the public, and included participants of her pop-up 'Engaged' project, a BT-supported interactive event which took place in a phone booth in St Andrews in December 2019. In addition to members of the public, audience members included a significant number of international creative practitioners and representatives from third sector organisations.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2020
Description John Giorno and Dial-a-Poem media coverage 
Form Of Engagement Activity A broadcast e.g. TV/radio/film/podcast (other than news/press)
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact Sarah Jackson was invited to discuss her research on John Giorno's Dial-a-Poem service with Matthew Sweet on BBC Radio 3's Free Thinking. The episode aired on Tuesday 3rd December and the programme was entitled 'When TV and the Information Superhighway were New'. Jackson shared her research on Giorno's multimedia poetry experiments, including the history of Dial-a-Poem, and Jackson's recreation of the project in terms of a mobile app and phone booth installation. It included a telephone interview with poet Vahni Capildeo in Trinidad, during which they read their new poem, 'Full-Circle Bells', which was commissioned as part of Jackson's research.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019
Description Sylvia Pankhurst media work 
Form Of Engagement Activity A press release, press conference or response to a media enquiry/interview
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Media (as a channel to the public)
Results and Impact In December 2018, Dr Sarah Jackson found letters in the BT Archives from suffragette and activist Sylvia Pankhurst to the Postmaster General regarding her concerns about phone tapping. Following discussion with the Head of Communications, the AHRC issued a press release about Jackson's discovery. Her research was subsequently covered widely in the national press, receiving 47 media mentions, with full page coverage in The Guardian, the Mail Online and the BBC News website. Dr Jackson was interviewed on BBC Radio 4's Today Programme (on average 7 million listeners per week), on BBC Radio London, BBC Radio Scotland, and BBC Radio Nottingham. In terms of media coverage the public had more than 10 million opportunities to see the coverage, and the BBC news online piece was read by nearly 150,000 people.
The research and coverage is featured as a case study on the AHRC's website: and Dr Jackson has provided a short film/interview for use by the BT Archives during the 'Valuing Archives' conference at Henley Business School, University of Reading in March 2019.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2018