During my long-ago childhood I could never have imagined that a phone—a heavy, stable black object—would become a traveling computer weighing only a few ounces. But back then, of course, a computer was an imaginary device with miraculous powers that belonged to the world of science fiction.
The phones of my youth sat firmly on tables. Their cords were short and fixed, and you had to sit or stand right next to them to make a call. You picked up the top part of the phone—a receiver, not a handset—and stuck your finger in the circle of numbers and letters below, slowly “dialing” one after another until you had spelled out something like BUtterfield 8-1234 or “PEnnsylvania 6-5000:”
If the person you called was already talking to someone else you heard a busy signal and had to hang up and try again later. If not, you heard a ring, not a ringtone, that went on forever or until someone answered. If nobody answered in what seemed like a reasonable length of time you assumed they weren’t home, hung up, and tried again later. That’s the way it was. You did not leave a message, and here’s the good news: they never found out that you had called, and neither did the FBI (or maybe they did, but who knew?).
As kids we were desperate to spend a great deal of time on the phone, in privacy. Middle-class families generally had two phones—that is, two extensions of the same phone number. Separate phone numbers for the children came much later, and then only to doctors’ households. One of these objects was in some public place like the front hall, and the other was in the parents’ bedroom. The ideal circumstance was to have the parents out and to lounge on their bed (or more likely beds, but that’s a topic for another post) so you could talk in comfort and privacy as long as you liked. Parents hated this, and when they came home, ordered you to get off the phone and straighten up the bed, asking snarky rhetorical questions about why you had to talk to Susie when you saw her all day in school. “Yes, but I had to get the homework,…” and so it went.
It’s worth mentioning that outside the house there were public phones, known as pay phones, on certain street corners and in places like hospitals and bus stations. A pay phone resided in a booth with a folding door that closed behind you; the booth held a little half-bench on which you perched while you dropped coins in the slot to make the call. That part was problematic, because calls cost varying amounts depending on such matters as distance and time of day; a lady on the other end of the line called an operator was always there to tell you how much you owed, and you had to supply exact change. Unless, of course, you could call collect – meaning that the person who received the call told the operator they were willing to pay for it. Generally speaking, this worked only when calling one’s parents – phoning home.
The cost of calls varied according to time of day and distance not only on public phones, but also at home. There was a good deal of discussion about who could be called in what city or town—or, God forbid, country—at what hour of the day. It cost more to call at certain hours (9 a.m. to 9 p.m? I don’t remember), so the timing of long-distance calls was carefully plotted. And there’s more! Long-distance calls were made with the help of the operator, and she (always female) inquired whether the call was to be “person to person” or “station to station.” If the former, the call cost more per minute, but it cost nothing if the particular individual you wanted was not at home. Station to station was cheaper, but you might not reach the person you wanted, known to operators as “your party,” and you’d still have to pay for the call. There was much to consider.
In those days messages had to be left with fallible human beings, if any were available. When answering machines first appeared they were regarded as rude and intrusive—now, of course, it is inconsiderate and rather anti-social not to offer voice mail to callers.
Nobody has to use a landline at all these days, and in fact almost nobody born after 1980 even has one. Nowadays, if you’re old enough to have a phone you can talk or text, day and night and possibly—if you can get away with it—at the dinner table. Even in heavy traffic, people walk around the streets staring into their hands. I have written elsewhere about the constant communication of modern times, which extends even to those traveling in distant places; it’s almost impossible to be “away,” or out of touch. Even without speech, there is endless communication… by email, by text, by Facebook and Twitter and the rest.
I think it’s unfair that although many members of my Silent Generation took to email enthusiastically (all right, with some resistance at the very beginning), it is now out of style. Perhaps we liked it, even became a little bit addicted, because it offered us a means to talk Silently – but no matter, it’s over. My grandchildren have email but never seem to look at it. If I want to say more than a few words to them, I have to send a text saying “Read your email!”
The same kind of thing seems to be happening to Facebook, which I finally have begun to appreciate—well, not the algorithms, but who does? Now it’s all Instagram, Snapchat, or whatever’s newer. Twitter, without a doubt, is the oddest and most difficult to grasp of the new communication systems. I think I get it, sort of—it’s for advertising, or pushing political agendas, or informing many other people about what you think and what you’re doing. I do see that it’s extremely competitive—the more important you are, the more “followers” you acquire. For me that’s OK because almost no one in my regular universe inhabits the Twitterverse, and vice versa, so almost no one who counts is counting. But I do wonder—where do tweets go?
For that matter, where do texts go? Mine sometimes turn green and disappear…
If I complain about that or any other digital matter, the routine response is—ask a grandchild. Not a bad strategy if you have some and they’re very young. The younger the better; the older ones, although kind, tend to be busy.
But just as I never, ever could have imagined that the heavy black phones of my childhood could morph into the devices of today, I would not have believed – and would have been appalled – to find my words changed and my spelling corrected by—what? A telephone? A tiny machine with a devilish little mind of its own and the temerity to alter the style and meaning of my words? In response to a text with a new and disgusting revelation about Donald Trump I wrote back “ick.” That concise and perfect term, chosen carefully for the occasion, was transformed in my reply into a lofty “I know.” Auto-correct may be one giant leap for mankind, but it’s one short step too far for me.
Comments welcome; trolls will be blocked 😜