. . . (ring) . . . (ring) . . . (ring) . . . (click) . . . “Hi, can’t take your call right now; leave your name and number after the beep and I’ll get back to you.” . . . (beep) bzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz (click)
Recently a friend told me about the problem she was having with her telephone. It was doing all sorts of weird things on its own. Right in the middle of a conversation it would tend to disappear. On other occasions she would find out that someone tried to call her but the thing did not ring. One day after the umpteenth time a phone company tech guy came to work on the problem with the “new and improved” system, she finally got an honest answer from him. He said people all over were having similar problems. His next-door neighbor was a ham operator and every time the neighbor went on the air the techie’s own TV went dark and his Internet crashed.
The techie finally admitted that his company’s long-range goal was to replace its landline system with cell phones. It was upping its landline rates in an effort to make them so expensive that customers would give up and switch to cell phones, sort of a slick corporate manipulation if I ever heard one. Evidently the company saw a new profit bonanza in “mining copper” from its soon-to-be defunct landlines. Could have Ronald Reagan, in his infinite wisdom, seen this coming when he deregulated Ma Bell way back when? What else did he miss in unintended consequences?
All this got my memory buds a’ blooming remembering our long love affair with phones. Remember “Central?” My wife’s grandpa used to pick up the phone and say to Central, “Hon, can you tell me where my daughter is?” And many a time she probably did! Then there were those party lines and all the eavesdropping and excitement they generated. Our number at home was 504-J. The one next door at the church where Daddy was pastor was 504-W. I admit that our phone “action” was not as exciting as tales I have heard years later of the 8-party lines up in the mountains of eastern Kentucky.
The automated dial system with its rotary phones replaced the old live operator phones. Then came growing named and numbered exchanges. Newer “push button” or commercial touch-tone phones were first introduced at the 1962 World’s Fair in Seattle.[i] Oh, yes, area codes entered the scene as the number of users piled up. We could actually find people and where they lived simply by going to the phone books with all the numbers and addresses listed until some folk went to unlisted numbers. That all went by the way when big-as-a-shoebox sized “mobiles” with shoulder straps came on the market. They weren’t listed in the phone book either. Early clam shelled cell phones showed up and later the “smart phones” with all their apps. Phone books are only half useful locators now.
A few weeks back I was playing email tag with my wife’s niece trying to set up a Skype session when she said, “Text me when you are ready.” I wrote back, “I don’t text, cause I had it turned off on my cell phone.” She called me on my cell phone and laughed at my not texting. She said her kids would roll their eyes and say, “you mean he can actually talk on his cell phone?” Call me old-fashion. Texting will never take the place of seeing loved ones’ handwriting in an old letter or hearing their voice over the phone, even if only on an answering machine. Skype, however, is a pretty good substitute for “being there.”
We have come a long way in communication technology since those immortal words–“Mr. Watson, Come here; I want you”–the first coherent complete sentence transmitted telegraphically.[ii] Could Alexander ever imagine that some day a camera would be attached to his new invention? The other night I read an article about “Viners” that used their smart phones to video their new “six second” stories they looped vertically several times. You had to see them more than once to get the message. With this new platform Viners have dreams of changing the entertainment world.[iii] [Now you know I am in over my head by inserting these comments on Viners. I did it so I could patch Alexander into 21st Century technology!]
While writing this, I have been trying to resurrect what I think was an old phone company commercial that spoke of “keeping in touch” or “reaching out and touch somebody today.” I googled that latter phrase and what did I get? Lyrics for Diana Ross’s “Reach Out and Touch (Somebody’s Hand),” which she sang in the 1970s about “making the world a better place” this way. On the same page was a little button you could push to “download a ring tone to your mobile!” But that wasn’t all; this song was track #3 on the album “Never Can Say Goodbye.”[iv] Now if that isn’t double-barreled serendipity, I don’t know what is. Two chance tie-ins to phones with much more than technological interconnectedness on this link!
What got me going down this progressively random communication rabbit trail was more than concern about switching totally from continuously alive landlines to cell phones that have to be constantly recharged. That by itself gave me the heebie-jeebies because of the specter of “loosing contact.” I remember an eight-day ice storm power outage during which my landline worked but I sat freezing in my car recharging my cell phone just in case. There is a more visceral elemental feeling at work here.
Years ago I took comfort in a primordial sort of fantasizing way that when I picked up my landline phone and held it in my hand I felt I was literally “in touch” with the person on the other end of the line. My hand touched the receiver, that was connected to a line leaving my house, that joined another line on a pole, that connected with a trunk line, that went to another city–any city anywhere–that connected to a pole line, that hooked up with a line going in to my friend’s house, that touched his receiver, that touched his hand! We were “elementally connected.” I know it’s crazy, but I never felt that same connection on my cell phone.
What is happening here is more than deploring the fear of being overcome with “technological progress” that dehumanizes and separates us, though that is a worthy concern. It is about the deep human longing for keeping relational connections; for reaching out and touching somebody’s hand; for never loosing contact, for never saying goodbye. Not merely in a “virtual world” but in a “bone and sinew face-to-face reality.”
Once you say “never,” mortality raises its hoary head and “never” is no longer indefinite. We all come to a point in life when our relational connections become unconnected, when we can no longer touch the somebody’s hand we love; when we loose contact or have to say goodbye. That isn’t an easy time. However, if you are reading this, then you are not at that point yet and neither am I.
In the meantime, let’s keep in touch! I’m still on the line!
12-29-14 © McAtee & weegems, 2014
[ii] The first coherent complete sentence transmitted telegraphically in Alexander Graham Bell’s laboratory on March 10, 1876. http://www.history.com/topics/inventions/alexander-graham-bell
[iii] The New Yorker. “Hollywood and Vine: How Six Seconds Could Change Entertainment.” December 15, 2014.
[iv] “Reach Out and Touch (Somebody’s Hand).” written by Nickolas Ashford and Valerie Simpson.