Now and then I think about how much the way we communicate has changed in just a relatively short time, and it really came home to me last night as I sat here trying to organize no fewer than three cellphones, syncing their address books and calendars with two computers, and also had two “dumb” phones (or “landlines,” as the retronym has it) out on the table. Something started ringing, and I had no idea which one it was. Well, as Ellis Weiner once wrote, “To create a world in which one’s forebears would be lost, confused and terrified – that is the meaning of progress.” (Almost misattributed that to P.J. O’Rourke, but I should have known he didn’t carry quite that level of insight.) So now we have created that world for ourselves. I can just about manage the information age (I was a computer programmer back in the days of paper tape, for crying out loud), and I’ve mastered the Bluetooth synchronization thing, but I’ll admit I don’t know what 3G is or why my phone should have it. It just gets to be too much.
Things were certainly different when we were kids. Of course, no one had cellphones, and I knew no one who had their own phone line. The whole house had one phone. Our parents only had the vaguest idea of where we were at any given moment, and if they didn’t express enough interest to find out, we weren’t going out of our way to tell them. If something came up and you couldn’t borrow the use of a phone at a friend’s house, there were payphones everywhere. Now on the occasion when we’re short a cellphone for our disjointed family activities, you can’t count on somebody getting to a payphone; they’ve disappeared.
It’s not even that long ago that computers didn’t have wireless, and the only way to get in touch with the world when you were traveling was to carry phone cords and plug your laptop into a telephone somewhere. Since webmail hadn’t been mastered yet, I remember anxious minutes sitting at a particular kiosk of payphones at National Airport, the ones that had data ports, waiting for my laptop to dial the home office and download, at excruciatingly slow speed, my email. Then I would have to sift through it, write quick responses, and then reconnect to send it all. The whole system worked about, I’d say, 13% of the time (which created great frustration at carrying around a 7-pound electronic brick) so I’m not complaining about progress, mind you. I’m just saying I can see the day when I turn into the elder generation and stop trying to figure it all out, and just start slamming buttons and yelling at devices before going on a rant about how in the old days a call cost a dime and you could actually hear the person on the other end. And that day is coming soon.