TOM DAVIES: The Verdict — Are Young People Being Shortchanged?

I was watching a Facebook video showing a young man walking into a street pole; a young man falling into a pool; a young lady smashing into a glass door; a young man stepping in front of a moving car; and a young lady falling flat on her face after missing a step.

These people all had one thing in common: They were all looking at their cell phones and not where they were going. It’s even worse when they do the same thing while driving. That’s how accidents and sometimes death occurs.

Just look around at family gatherings, in town, at sporting events, at the lake. …  Young people simply can’t put down their phones and enjoy the real world. While I do have a cell phone, a computer and a tablet, I don’t live on them (at least, if you don’t count Facebook). I have to admit I’m beginning to resent those personal machines and how their owners use them.

I have a hard time watching this younger electronic generation marching to the beat of their electronic drummer. To be sure, given the murders of students in this country, our young people are doing what the adults up to now have not dared to do. They want the carnage to stop, and they are organizing to do just that. The courage of this new generation is not in question.

But I just wish there was a way to let them know what they are missing … without going through my own youth, back when dinosaurs roamed the Earth.

We had our electronic messages also. When the streetlights came on, we knew it was time to head for home. If the streetlights didn’t get your attention, then your porch light came on and you knew to head for home to avoid a grounding.

Daylight Saving Time would have created mayhem back in those days. Thankfully, it didn’t yet exist.

Back in my day, we knew entire neighborhoods — including everyone’s name and occupation. We knew the owners of the neighborhood grocery stores where our parents sent us to pick up whatever our moms wanted. We knew the names of the neighborhood bus drivers, the milkmen and our mailmen. In other words, we were connected to our surroundings personally, not through impersonal electronic media.

We organized neighborhood park activities. Most of us had our own disorganized softball, touch-ball, flag ball, baseball, basketball and hockey teams. The park boards slowly but surely caught up with us and came to organize the same things — but that was never the same as when we picked our own teams. By the way, never did we ever leave out someone because they weren’t talented. None of us were talented! That worked just fine.

In our neighborhoods, bullies weren’t tolerated. We all had older brothers and sisters. If someone gave us crap, they only did it once. Our siblings didn’t have to hit anyone. They simply explained the pain the bully would feel if they didn’t back off.

Kenny Hunt, a classmate of my older brother, went on to play for the New York Yankees. My eldest sister could throw a softball just as far as Kenny. (But if I use her name, she’ll scalp me.)

I guess the point I’m trying to recommend that young people take a timeout from their electronics. Use your phone when you need to, not just when you have nothing better to do. See the world and the environment around you as it is — not in a fog as you live instead in your electronic world.

There are so many thing to see, so much to do, so many friends to cultivate in this world of ours. It all works better in person than through a colored screen.

I wouldn’t trade my childhood for that of kids today for anything. But,then, I’ll be 79 on April 4, so some won’t care. By the way, if you want to make me happy, send cash April 4. Amen.

NANCY EDMONDS HANSON: After Thought — Last Call

We finally did it — we cut the cord. After a lifetime of landline telephony, we pulled the anchor and sailed away from Ma Bell.

No wonder, then, why I’m feeling just a bit adrift.

We’d been thinking about doing it for a long, long time … every winter when new directories are dropped off on our front step, and we deposit them straight into the recycling bin; every time I dial a number retrieved from my ancient Rolodex, only to find it’s no longer in service; and (for years now) every time that dadblasted ringy dingy blares forth at the most inopportune moment, only to bring on the umpteenth idiot robocall or another hapless taker of surveys.

Though we left the official Ma Bell a long time ago, we’ve still maintained that connection to the civilized world via our cellphone company’s home service. We needed it in case of emergencies, we thought. We needed it so our older relatives can reach us (though we’re now the oldest ones left). We needed to keep the line open for the Publishers Clearinghouse Giveaway, who we somehow assumed would place an old-style call with the good news.

In other words, we dragged our feet. Though both Russ and I rarely lay down our Androids from sun-up to sleepytime, the thought of disconnecting the “real” telephone seemed so … final. Was landlineless life worth living?

So I asked a small question on Facebook: Was this a good idea? Turns out, my virtual friends are passionate about this issue and were just waiting for someone to ask them. One hundred forty-four replied! Exactly three of them told me, “Don’t do it,” two citing the possibility of cell towers going down and a third mentioning faxes. As a survivor of Michael Damron’s notorious assault on Fargo-Moorhead phone lines in 1995, the tower thing doesn’t scare me much. As for faxes, I haven’t needed to send one for a decade; a modern-day Damron could sabotage that service, and most of us would never notice.

The most common reaction on Facebook: “OMG, you mean you still have a landline? LOL.”

It seems that Russ and I were blithely unaware that we’d fallen in among the last of our kind — antique specimens still hardwired to humanity. So we joined the modern world ourselves. I’m beginning to relax.

What kept us wired, I think, was a combination of inertia and sweet memories. There was a time when installing your first telephone in your first apartment was an unmistakable sign of adulthood — a confirmation that you were so grown up that Northwestern Bell trusted you to forward a monthly check. For the first few decades of adult life, I couldn’t wait to get the new directory; the first thing I did was look up my own name. Yep, there I am! I’m somebody!

Until now, I’ve never lived in a home without its own telephone. Oh, sure, we shared a party line when I was a child and more easily impressed — three shorts. Like all the neighbor kids, we mastered the subtle art of picking up the neighbors’ calls, then giggling silently until our mothers caught us. It was rude and unethical, she’d lecture us, to eavesdrop. I never caught her practicing the stealthy art herself, though I still have my suspicions.

Our family moved often, as we followed her teaching gigs in the fall, then returned to the farm in summer. Getting the telephone hooked up was the universal signal that we’d, so to speak, arrived. Our state-of-the-art connection to the outside world was always black, always equipped with a rotary dial that chipped Mother’s fire-engine-red manicure, always mounted in its place of honor on the wall in whatever kitchen we inhabited. Though anything but mobile, it did come with a twisted spiral cord long enough to pull into the coat closet by the back door for highly sensitive teen-age conversations.

The phone’s thoughtfully designed receiver was sturdy and fit the hand just right, with the listening part snugged against your ear and the talking end nicely resting near your mouth. Conversation was crystal clear (or as clear as teens ever managed). Calls never ended abruptly except when my parents said, “Enough is enough.” It didn’t require any ritual of recharging. No one I knew ever dropped it, not even once, in the toilet.

But progress shuffled it aside. After 20 years of ever more demanding cellphones, I’ve become trained to not jump when melodic tones blare out of my back pocket. I’ve come to depend on the built-in phone directory that tells me whose call is coming in and relieves me of any responsibility to try to remember digits.

Texting has finally bewitched me, after years of the haughty conviction it was for the birds. Pecking at the “6” button thrice to achieve an O was way more trouble than it was worth, back in the era of flip phones … especially for someone who needs more than 140 characters just to say “hello.” Now, of course, that’s been replaced by a not-so-smartphone that arrogantly attempts to guess every word I’m trying to type, coming up with some of the most hallucinatory blurts since Timothy Leary’s heyday.

Today, in fact, I’m as inclined to avoid flexing my vocal cords as any text-crazed Millennial.

But maybe that’s because of all we have left behind. Remember when you could hear every word of both sides of a telephone conversation? When you and your caller could step on the end of each other’s sentences or interject without the sound gapping out? When you could carry on conversations while fixing supper, with the receiver safely ensconced between your shoulder and your cheek?

And do you recall being able to reel off your number without even trying whenever someone asked — instead of pulling out your screen to be sure? Oddly, though I still must double-check to be sure I haven’t mangled those cellphone digits, I can reel off the long-outlived cadence of my first Fargo phone number without a moment’s hesitation.

And that, at last, sums up what all this progress has cost us. Before robocalls, before phishing, before endless sneaky, slanted “surveys” — telephones deserved to be answered.

NANCY EDMONDS HANSON: After Thought — Press ‘Pound’ And Give Up Hope

Gone are the days when its ring heralded something good — and something human. The technological wonder of the 19th century has become the scourge of the 21st. A once-useful device for connecting — to “reach out and touch someone,” as the phonesters so often reminded us — has officially been high-teched past the point of no return.

I spent five hours yesterday trying to find answers to to three fairly straightforward but urgent questions. These frequently repeated calls — two to specific individuals and one for tech support — concerned issues that really did matter to me. My inquiries could have been answered easily and quickly, had I reached an actual human. In the end, though, I talked to no living, breathing hominids whatsoever. I finally gave up.

Yet I did gain something valuable from my endless interlude — climbing telephone trees, trying to decipher fuzzy instructions, pressing buttons and listening to blaring taped music in the endless purgatory that is “please hold.” It gave me plenty of time to ponder one of the great existential questions of our curious age: How could the blessings of technology turn a once-useful convenience into this darkest of curses?

Like lots of once-simple tasks that we could take for granted, using the telephone has been “improved” to the point of being virtually useless. That fits the phone to a T.

From the party lines of my childhood and the miracle of direct-dial, the technology we once took for granted has been complicated, miniaturized, set loose from its moorings and cluttered up with so many frivolous functions that, today, it’s easier to drive across town and talk face to face.

Once upon a time, calling was easy. You walked over to Alexander Graham Bell’s amazing invention — usually black and hanging on the kitchen wall — and followed a simple protocol. You effortlessly picked up the receiver, always easy to find at the end of a long, spiral cord. You used an index finger (or, if manicured, the eraser end of a pencil) to spin the rotary dial to pick out a local number starting, perhaps, with ADams or CEdar or CApital or CLinton (Jamestown’s old prefix — how prescient).

A phone rang in some unseen location. Someone answered it — “Hello?” You could hear each other just fine. You chatted for a moment, asked whatever was bugging you, thanked the other and hung up.

Then … technology struck … and has kept on striking ever since. Meanwhile, we’re still waiting for our chance to hit it back.

I’m not sure which came first — cordless phones or telemarketers. Both were the harbingers of dark days to come. Cutting the cord enabled everyday Americans to lose their phones all over the house, only to find the batteries were dead when they were finally uncovered.

Telemarketing — need I say more? What a miracle! Now perfect strangers could interrupt anything you were doing at work or at home at any hour of the day or night. The phone company’s marketing phrase, “reach out and touch someone,” came only half-true. Sellers and survey-takers could tap us on the shoulder with impunity. We, however, had no reciprocal option to wring their necks.

Businesses saw other possibilities, too. Receptionists — those smart, cordial (mostly) women who answered the phones for corporations and government — could be eliminated by paying big bucks for the latest in automated answering systems.

Every single person you know, including you and me, despises them. Press 1 if you’re calling about your account. Press 2 if you’re calling about a service problem. Press 3 if you know your party’s number. Press 4 for an endless list of everyone who works for us — which will not include the one person you want to talk to. Press 5 for a scratchy, bad rendition of vaguely remembered music from the 1950s. Press 6 to endure an unnaturally loud on-hold tape of self-serving sales pitches for products you will never want in a million years. Press 7 if you recognize the futility of modern existence. Press 8 to repeat these options endlessly until an asteroid finally obliterates the earth or you throw your phone through a plate-glass window. Hold, please.

That’s how my afternoon went.

Cell phones seemed like a miracle 25 years ago. I could drive by myself across darkest North Dakota, knowing that if a tire went flat or a fuel pump died, I could summon help … or at least commiserate with someone at a distance.

But the air went out of that happy balloon in short order. When pocket-sized phones were still a novelty, it was easy to cut them some slack. Your connection faded in and out as you traveled the hills of central North Dakota? Annoying but understandable. You’ve misplaced your phone? Just call it. Perhaps it’ll ring-a-ding from under a load of laundry. And mercifully, the telemarketers couldn’t get your number.

Sadly, technology waits for no one. Those trusty little old flip phones — with their speakers stationed at ear level and microphone next to your lips — have been “improved” into fragile slabs of glass, silicon and overarching ambition. Now that they’re “smart” and even call themselves “I,” they can snap pictures, play games, show movies, throw a brilliant beacon of light, calculate math problems and send itty bitty smiley faces all over the planet.

What can’t these modern marvels do so well? Transmit a clear conversation. Our ears squint hopelessly to make out the words. Perhaps the caller is using Bluetooth, a technology designed to enable them to hear perfectly, while you can’t make out more than half of what the user is trying to say. Or maybe your connection picks up just enough background buzz from other conversations in the ether that you can’t hear your own call clearly … or make out what the anonymous pair are saying clearly enough to sate your curiosity. At least eavesdropping on party lines was loud and clear.

Meanwhile, the wizards of dialing for dollars were busy perfecting the single worst high-tech scourge in human history: robocalls. They’re everywhere — on the land lines that linger in businesses and some homes, and now on the smartphone in your pocket whose number you’ve guarded so jealously. The sales genius who long to sell long-distance have figured out how much we hate live telemarketers … and how caller ID enables us to ignore unfamiliar numbers and funky area codes.

So instead of placing them from call centers full of desperate humans, some of whom even speak passable English, they’ve replaced them with … more technology! Automated robocalling enables them to pitch their Google optimization and shady loans without having to listen to their victims’ response.

The phone rings — or buzzes, or barks, or sounds out the first bars of the latest Justin Bieber sonata. When you answer, you hear that hollow, soulless blast of the silence of deep space. Then the prerecorded blather begins to roll. Hang up quickly! That’ll keep the line open for the next sales caller.

I’ve always been a skeptic about text messaging. Why take the time for fat fingers to flit across a tiny keyboard — a mode of writing only slightly better than carving runestones — when you have an actual doggone telephone in the palm of your hand?

As society devolves, though, I’ve begun to get it. Telephones have become a sorry second-best way to talk to one another. You might as well type out whatever you have to say. To add a more human touch, don’t forget the exclamation points!!!!!

Or you could convey what you’re trying to say in smileys, frownies, cat icons and that brown heap that isn’t really chocolate Dairy Queen. True, no one will be quite sure of what you truly mean to say. But, at least, they won’t keep repeating the most pressing question of our age: Can you hear me now?