He never really cottoned to the telephone.
At least from his sixties onward, he regarded a ringing phone to be a minor emergency. Like a Western Union man banging on the front door with a telegram. The telephone was an expensive communication device to be used sparingly, if at all, and it posed several technical hurdles that were marks of a contraption not quite perfected.
One was dialing. This act required opening a book, adjusting eyeglasses, concentrating intensely to place a finger in the correct hole in the delicate rotary thingy and applying just the right clockwise force to make the desired number register.
Naturally, being up in years increased his difficulties with gadgetry. But I never took his pained approach to using the phone as a late-life issue. I tend to think he always viewed the telephone as something between a technical nuisance and a clanging miracle box. Hell, when he was a kid, you still had to turn a little crank to get some telephones to work. He told me that. The nickel the only handy phone required? That was a slice of pie. Dropped calls pissed you off.
For most of the last hundred thousand years, humans have dealt with the same geographical hurdle when it came to spur-of-the-moment communication: you couldn’t talk to anyone out of earshot. For simple messages, maybe you could bang on a hollow log, wave a torch or make smoke. If you had more time, you could ask someone to tell so-and-so something, or scribble pictures on a rock or write a letter or postcard or send a telegram. All were slow, tedious options. And highly abstract. The medium wasn’t you. At best, you could have a chopped, stilted conversation that was nothing remotely similar to speaking in person.
The telephone didn’t really change that for many people.
If you’re over 40, the phrase “it’s long distance” will mean something to you. So will “I’ll accept the charges.” You’ll remember that hiss and disorienting delay you’d hear when talking to a party ten states away, let alone on another continent. Getting California on the horn in 1978 was no trivial thing. It occasionally meant shouting and saying “go ahead,” like you were calling for air cover.
And when the bill came, it reminded you that talk—even if it’s forgettable and unimportant—sure as hell wasn’t cheap. Reaching out and touching someone meant digging down and paying someone. A forty-dollar phone call, when you were lucky to be making four hundred bucks a week, stung like a snapped towel after Ma Bell tallied the damage.
In short, the telephone made the planet about five hundred times smaller but that still left a big, fat planet. Calling far away wasn’t something you did on an empty whim—at least not frequently.
This provided a natural buffer for people like my dad, who hated talking on the phone. And it gave a small but critical atom of clemency for people who chronically, miserably suck at keeping in touch with others and quickly run out of things to say when they do get in touch. Like other people I resemble.
If you didn’t speak to the relative in Idaho for a year, or that friend in Albania for three years, it was possible that it wasn’t entirely due to you’re being an evil, nasty, heartless person. Distance and existent technology made communicating slightly tedious or at least mildly expensive, which made the “one week just went into another” excuse a scintilla less lame. And it was often mutual. Was your relative or friend burning through their light-green stationary and filling your mailbox? Calling you once a month? If not, the cliché about how “time just got away from us” might almost seem defensible.
In the last decade, that hundred-thousand-year buffer—and any hair of clemency it offered to the pathetically incommunicado—was obliterated.
It’s completely gone.
Email, Facebook, instant messages, cell phones and Skype blew it to smithereens.
Now, you are not simply silent—you are silent with prejudice. You are no longer missing because you haven’t gotten around to getting in touch—you’re willfully MIA because you lack the basic common decency to click a laptop or a smartphone, dial a free number or otherwise expend the molecule of effort and tact needed to acknowledge some effortless virtual poke.
The speed of this change has been a gut kick. I clearly remember phoning a friend in Italy in the early 1990s. I remember the clean dopamine spurt in hearing those long tones finally sound after three or four failed call attempts—you had to dial in those 68 numbers perfectly. I recall the happy surprise in the other person’s voice when they heard a foreign language and realized they were getting a telephone call from fucking America.
Both parties had the continuous awareness that every second was, if not precious, at least piling toward it. Even if you were using a relatively cheap phone card—which added dizzying dialing complexity—the meter was running. You couldn’t get a sentence across? Quit trying; it wasn’t worth it. Four people needed to extend holiday greetings? You passed that phone around like a grenade. When the fifteen bucks on the card were up, they were up. Saying goodbye meant signing off with weighty finality; once you hung up, the wormhole connecting you was gone. The human you just spoke to might as well have been on a moon of Saturn.
Even at just 19 cents a minute with a $1 connect fee, it was still long distance.
Today, nothing is long distance.
No one you know, who is still alive, is likely ever out of hair-pulling range, metaphorically, much less earshot.
Almost every person you know, who is still alive, is perpetually standing in your front yard. And they see you peeping at the window.
If you have a Facebook account, regardless if you rarely use it, you are now a regular patron of a diner that is constantly—24 hours a day—crammed chock-full of your relatives, close friends, extended friends, acquaintances, warmly regarded colleagues, neutrally regarded colleagues and swarms of other people with whom you share some illustratable connection, past and present.
Every single one of them.
You’d like to think that you could walk quickly to the counter with your head down, get a coffee and walk out, speaking to no one. Or maybe just lift an awkward eyebrow to a random soul or two before getting out of there. But every time you do that, which is just about every time you venture into the conclave, you know you’re subtly insulting scores of people. They might not care. Most assuredly don’t. Hell, all but a few absolutely don’t. Maybe none at all. Right?
But they all could care, at any minute. So could you. And you do, sometimes, though it’s probably rare. Like when your well-intended, weightless but not totally trivial Facebook message or post goes completely unacknowledged by a person who is obviously on Facebook every now and then. Like yourself. Or surely on email. Like yourself. Or, son of a bitch, certainly glancing at least once in a while at the text messages buzzing on the goddamned pocket communicator we all carry.
You might go years without caring. But you know, every day, the math has changed and it’s never going back to what it was. And you know everyone knows it.
You are now choosing to not be in touch.
Choosing to maintain the illusion of the “where did the time go?” excuse after its weak underpinnings have vaporized.
You are never just silent now.
You are silent with prejudice.