How did phones take over our lives?

Once it was a simple black object that rarely broke the silence. Now it's a ubiquitous monster, intruding all the time. This is progress?
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The old telephone knew its modest place in our lives.

Once it was a simple black object that rarely broke the silence. Now it's a ubiquitous monster, intruding all the time. This is progress?

When I was a kid we had a small desk in the right hand corner of the dining room. Although my father used it some, it seemed more suited for a woman than a man. It was painted a light green. On the desk there was an almost-stylish black lamp. Near the desk was a multi-tiered wooden settee that held my mother’s African violets. Their light shades of pink and purple seemed to go well with the small light-green desk.

On the desk was our phone. It was black and had a rotary dial. Our phone number, I vaguely recall, began with letters like “KE” (for Kenmore) followed by a string of numbers. Besides the phone and the lamp, also on the desk were a blotter, a letter holder for bills, and what interested me most, a knife-like letter opener with the imprint of the local bank on its fake mother-of-pearl handle.

But the phone. That was the phone. The only phone in the house, at least until my sister became a teenager. Then, after protracted discussion between my parents, it was decided to add an “extension” in my sister’s room. Girls, it seemed, needed to talk on the phone a good bit. But for most of my young life we had that one fat, black, rotary phone that sat heavily on the small desk in the dining room.

No one had a phone they carried with them. My Dad had another phone number at work, as did my mother. I suppose the phone numbers of the schools my sister and I went to were posted somewhere, along with numbers for various relatives and friends. But no one carried a phone with them nor did it occur to us that we ever might. Phones mostly sat on desks or kitchen counters, or hung on walls. Or they were in “phone booths,” which were scattered on the streets, at service stations, and in public places like hospitals.

So the phone — our fat, black, rotary phone — would ring. Someone would shout, “I’ve got it,” hurry to the green desk, pick up the black receiver and say, “Hello.” Or if one of us needed to make a call we might stand by the desk or perch on the desk chair. There weren’t a lot of phone calls going in or out. Just the usual number. Nor did phone calls last long. They were more functional than social, for the most part. Occasionally, there was a Sunday phone call with one or another grandparent on the distant West Coast. The phone might, or might not, be handed around for a quick “hello,” and “how are you?” “Fine.” “We hope we’ll see you this summer?” “Tell everyone I said ‘hello,’” and that was pretty much it. “Long distance” cost extra.

What strikes me, looking back, was what a small role, really, the phone played in our lives. That and the quiet. The jangle of the phone’s ring was more an interruption than a steady presence. There was just a whole lot less information coming in or going out.

Still, the phone had an important role. The day my grandfather died, which happened to be my eighth birthday, I came downstairs to find my mother weeping and my Dad on the phone trying to make arrangements for us to fly out. I’m sure our black rotary phone played its role in other such emergencies as well as various and ordinary social arrangements and the like. But it was a limited role.

Today, of course, everyone — every single individual — has a phone of their own. Moreover, they have their phone, which is often really a hand-held computer, with them at all times. As a consequence, we call and answer all the time. “Just calling to let you know, I’m on the plane.” “Hi, I’m at the store, need anything?” “No nothing special, just thought I’d call and say ‘hi,’ What are you doing? You were asleep because its 4:00 in the morning there?”

Moreover, the fact that we all, more or less, have a phone which is with us at most all times means that we are always “on-call,” 24/7. Or we are texting messages or sending voice mails or emails, or checking the weather in Toronto or the scores in Seattle.

I fly a good bit. When we land, people are on their phones like squirrels on nuts, staring at the small screens, pressing and poking as if the two hours of disconnection while in flight may have witnessed major reversals in their personal fortunes or world history. Who knows, maybe I was traded to another team? Or my home disappeared into a sink hole?

Recently I was at a meeting of about ten people somewhere on the East Coast. As people gathered they organized their phones and computers in front of them. At each break, some of the group were texting, or listening to messages, or making calls. Others were on their computers, responding to email I guess, during much of the meeting.

I find myself wistful for the single, black rotary phone in the living room. Having a place, the phone had, it seemed, a more limited role, or limited hold, on our lives. There was somehow more silence, less constant activity and stimulation. I wonder if we were better off, or different, with less chatter, less input?

Now that our phones have no particular place, they have every place. We process more information than a radar-equipped bat on the hunt. Every place and every time: in the car, on the street, in the bus. At the dinner table. In the movies. At school and work, on a walk, and at a ballgame. Recently, while hiking in a wilderness area and at 8,000 feet elevation, I crossed a beautiful mountain stream and came upon a fellow hiker who was checking the messages on his phone. Of course.

The everywhere-ness, instead of on-the-desk-in-the-dining-room-ness, of phones means other things. Not only are we processing a lot more stuff and living amid constant contact; there’s less of a boundary between work and home. Heck, with your phone qua computer, you can be at work all the time, any time and any place. The lines blur between home and work, public and private, family and everything else. The silence recedes.

Some days I wonder if we will revolt against our phones? Will we get sick of their always being there? Will we stomp them into shards on some streetcorner or just refuse to re-charge them and sign-off FOREVER? Maybe we will say “No,” to the next upgrade or innovation? But probably not.

Still I do wonder is this progress or a strange Orwellian form of captivity? You have to ask if we own our phones or if our phones own us?


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About the Authors & Contributors

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Anthony B. Robinson

Anthony B. Robinson was the Senior Minister of Plymouth Church in downtown Seattle from 1990 to 2004. He was also a member of the Plymouth Housing Group Board. After living for many years in southeast Seattle, he moved recently to Ballard.