NANCY EDMONDS HANSON: After Thought — Hello? Hello? Is Someone Listening?

Of all things, Russ and I were talking about bath mats. I’d just taken a shower downstairs, and I’d noticed that the mundane incumbent — already bearing the stains of years of feline hairball disposal — had begun shedding bits of fuzz and flakes of latex all over the tile floor. A trip to Target seemed to be in order soon.

When I logged into Facebook the next morning, the first thing I saw was an Amazon ad. For a bath mat. Not just any bath mat — the precise unusual shape the room required, in the perfect color and even the fiber content I had in mind.

Cue the music from “The Twilight Zone”!

We all know by now the World Wide Web tabulates nuggets of data from every move we make online … the sites we visit, the purveyors we follow, the people and events we mention, the answers we search for on everything from air fryers to eczema. But is someone listening, too?

Until last night, shopping for a new bath mat had honestly never crossed my mind — not in what we naively consider real life nor via Wi-Fi. I have never googled anything of the sort. I have never even typed those two words together until now — not in either email or a text. Bath mats just don’t seem to generate much conversation.

And no, we do not have Alexa or another so-called “personal assistant” device hanging on every word that’s uttered in our household. I’m even pretty sure our venerable microwave oven is too elderly to overhear us.

So … where did that ad come from? I’ve had the creepy feeling ever since that someone or something is eavesdropping on every word. Tin foil hats are not really my style. Otherwise, though, rational explanation of this cosmic-level coincidence eludes me. Tell me this: How many ads for unusually shaped off-white bath rugs have you noticed lately in your own newsfeed?

What next? First, of course, I ordered that perfect bath mat.

Then I resolved to never again think out loud about the bathroom.

When I shared this odd little story with several friends, they began showering me with their own weird synchronicities. We could explain many. Not all, though.

By now, everyone who’s even marginally tech-savvy has gotten used to seeing ads for books or music or shoes we’ve perused online pop up wherever we go next. We understand, at least vaguely, how Big Data and artificial intelligence logarithms enable the stalking. We’ve made peace with marketers gleaning sometimes-uncanny insights from our googling and browsing.

Click once; be tracked forever. We get it! If you’ve ever clicked on, say, a cat-lover’s T-shirt but dropped out before the “buy” button … you know for sure it’ll dog your cyber footsteps like a forlorn puppy.

Marketers are simply thrilled. “Artificial intelligence and marketing will make strides together,” one industry report crows happily. It goes on: “In 2017, marketing platforms collected and stored information such as site usage, browsing patterns, search history and content preferences to create customer profiles and behavior marketing strategies that help marketers create custom messages to address these prospects.” (It doesn’t mention if that data documents whether you prefer showers or baths. Yet.)

It doesn’t take an Alexa to pry open the doors of your private life. Our devilish devices already watch and listen to us. Smartphones are little tattletales. Next time you install an app, actually read the permissions before you hit “agree”: Chances are you’re giving it access to everything but your underwear drawer.

A year or so ago, tech experts revealed many so-called “smart TVs” — the kind that “learn” your voice, the better to respond to spoken commands — are always listening, even when you think they sleep. The recordings go … somewhere. A.I. is studying your speech, theoretically to serve you even better when you’re too lazy to reach for the remote to change the channel. While distant humans are almost certainly not listening to desultory conversation in your family room right now or spying on TVs that support Skype with their tiny cameras … they could.

Creepy? That seems to depend on your generation. To the majority of 20-something, the tech is amazing and cool. Digital since birth, they argue, “What’s not to like? It makes life easier.”

Some of us, though, are old enough to remember when pulling the shades and closing the front door guaranteed privacy. For us, it’s simply hair-raising. Self-aware gadgets so skilled at watching and listing drive shivers deep into the soul of anyone who remembers George Orwell’s “1984.” In that classic novel of a dystopian future ruled by Big Brother, the protagonist hides from the sinister “telescreens” that monitor him, even in his abode. Orwell wrote his prescient book in 1949, when TVs were still dumb little convex tubes inside huge cabinets with rabbit ears sticking up on top. Who (but he) ever dreamed they’d someday watch us back?

Paranoid? Perhaps. So let’s test it. A friend suggested we discuss the weirdest random topic we could imagine in front of my phone. How about old-time potato mashers? You’d be surprised how much we found to say about smashing boiled Russets. She even shared her mother’s favorite trick for getting them lump-free and creamy — squeezing the spuds through a potato ricer.

The next morning, several ads were featured on my smartphone, just like any other day … but with a difference. No, the kind of grandma-style hand masher we’d reminisced about wasn’t among them. But what did show up? A handheld appliance called the Dash Masha … and an electric rice cooker.

Close enough? I think so. Keep it to yourself.

NANCY EDMONDS HANSON: After Thought — Outsmarted!

Back when our daughter Patti was a tiny pumpkin, Russ and I already recognized that raising children is one of life’s greatest joys. What we didn’t understand back then was the biggest bonus that would come along with it.

We now find ourselves related to someone who knows how to set up a smart TV.

If, as you age, you’re getting the feeling you’re not quite as bright as you used to be, I’m here to assure you that you’re wrong. It’s not you and me. It’s that the most foolproof devices have been evolving faster than the midcentury brains that seek to master them, and they’ve managed to seize the upper hand.

In other words, the digital gadgets are pushing our buttons.

Adult life has been preparing us for this moment ever since we bought our first microwave oven back in 1975. Compared to the well-tamed electric burners on the stove beneath it, that modern miracle was a space-age marvel of demonic misdirection. It asserted its power with the very first task I asked of it, warming a couple of doughnuts.

Now, this was not the Einstein style of microwave where you’d just push a button labeled “warm doughnut.” This was its primitive precursor with a big round red target marked “start.”

Within the couple of minutes that seemed a reasonable starting point, it had turned my doughnuts to charcoal briquets.

We eventually figured out a judicious way to harness the beast. The instructions that used to come with newly purchased appliances, in English, were moderately helpful.

But that was just the beginning. As our appetite for electronics deepened, life grew ever more challenging. Digital clocks with obscure unmarked buttons replaced the sturdy kind whose hands moved around its face. Sewing machines grew silicon brains that took much more than pressing a floor pedal to be persuaded to stitch. Washing machines grew so many dials and cycles that they virtually demanded to know what brands of clothing were in your laundry basket.

Our calm, reliable television first turned surly with the advent of the VCR — early proof the tube would someday slip beyond our control. Please stand by. Soon those “technical difficulties” stations always warned us about would be all our own.

Once, back when my father brought home the enormous Emerson that was the first TV on our block, it limited its options to on-or-off and the channel dial. Operating the latter was especially easy in North Dakota in the 1960s, with only two stations to choose from — and just one that came in clearly. We could watch Milton Berle and Danny Thomas only so long as my little brother could be compelled to stand beside the TV table holding one of its rabbit ears.

Now, though, with a VCR, we not only had the far-more-sophisticated one-eyed monster dominating our living room. We also had a mysterious second box, not only with poorly marked buttons that could only be read lying on one’s belly on the floor, but also a digital clock and timer. With that, the generation just ahead of

ours simply gave up. Our parents turned to us, the analog version of today’s young digital elite, to set the hour. (Damn you, Daylight Savings Time!) When a power glitch upset the clock, despairing childless couples were known to resort to hiding the flashing red 12:00:00 with electrical tape.

Those were the days! For an all-too-brief span of years, Russ and I knew what we were doing. We transitioned early to computers and, then, to digital photography. We had worked out a gender-based division of digital responsibilities: He handled all the parts that required a screwdriver and getting on your knees under the desk, while I took to the keyboard to show my stuff. Why, I could write little programs in Microsoft Basic! My nicely organized boxes of back-up floppy disks — 5¼ inches, naturally — were the pride of the home-office set. I was wielding Photoshop before it even had a number. Meanwhile, Russ built a hardware geek’s dream stash of cords and connections and obscure little doodads.

The years passed. I threw the floppy disks in the garbage along with their offspring — 3 and one-half-inch disks and Zip disks that could be read only with the plug-in drive that never worked quite right. We wrote zillions of CDs and DVDs. Russ forgot which devices his inventory of spare cords went with. We converted Beta to VHS, half-inch tape to cassettes and starting tossing data up into the cloud. Our TV cabled up then started talking to satellites. The car radio went XM, drawing signals down from the stars … surely the greatest invention ever for those driving long hours across the FM-airwave-scarce prairie.

But somewhere along the way, the ever-marching world of digital data got away from us. Secure within our fading sense of competence, we still kept sliding forward … until the smart TV.

Let’s back up just a bit. In trying to tease programming off the Web, we first spent two years hatching various plans that didn’t quite work in our house. Roku. Amazon Fire. Chromecast. None delivered the easy results we longed for, which — oddly enough — did not include an always-sketchy Wi-Fi signal in the sunroom and juggling three separate sets of controls.

Enter the new Smart TV. It came in a box that held all our dreams. YouTube on the big screen! Netflix! Leisurely life-sized Skyping! Not to mention video knitting lessons from Craftsy …

There was no way on God’s green earth that Russ and I could ever hope to get it working.

And that’s when we realized advanced parenthood’s greatest blessing. Thank heavens for little girls … who grow up on computers, know the ins and outs of smartphones and marry other digital natives who can set up these genius electronics while I’m still trying to breach the bubble pack the batteries came in.

In the shade of our generation’s comeuppance, I do find solace in some of the new facts of life. No matter how smart our Millennials feel today, they’ll someday find themselves right where we are standing.

In our family, the world’s foremost grandbaby, their 6-month-old daughter, is already pushing buttons on her Fisher-Price favorites, born confident that music or an infant light show will ensue. Someday, she’ll leave her own parents far behind in a cloud of digital dust. But in the meantime, she can’t quite figure out how to eat pureed sweet potatoes from a spoon.

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?

NANCY EDMONDS HANSON: After Thought — Grandpa Gets A Smartphone

Apparently old dogs really can learn new tricks … at least, when their daughters take over the training.

After years of vehement denial, Russ has acquired a smartphone. It’s a day I never saw coming. The man has not merely resisted change: He has railed against it since his first sight of the iPhone nearly a decade ago. He continued to preach about how they were destroying human communication … right up until Patti took him by the hand and led him into the Sprint store.

Said our favorite sales rep, Rezza: “I knew we’d hook you someday.” Patti just smiled.

Rezza is the same man who, a couple of years back, had to special-order a classic flip phone to replace the one my husband dropped into a freshly dug grave just as the casket was being lowered. (Yes, this really happened.)

He questioned us closely as he filled out the requisition for the atavistic model Russ demanded: “Are you sure? Are you really sure you’re sure?” Russ assured him that he was really sure that he was really, really sure about this. My old curmudgeon loathed the very idea of those teenybopper status symbols. He wanted, he proclaimed, a “real phone.”

All it took was two more years of our kids failing to pick up, then ignoring his voicemail messages … years of tempting him to watch funny cat videos on my own smartphone … years of perfecting his lecture on how texting was ruining the art of actual conversation …

… and here he was, stepping over the digital divide into the 21st century. And only a generation late.

Our vital statistics tell the story. Russ and I are in the age group that not only “dials” and “hangs up” the phone but still uses telephone directories. The Pew Research Center’s most recent data note that smartphone usage ranges from 85 percent among the 18-to-29-year-olds, who scarcely remember a day unplugged from the Web, to just 27 percent of those older than 65, who grew up with black rotary telephones with long spiral tails mounted on the kitchen wall.

Pew subdivides our cohort into two groups — one with “relatively substantial technology assets,” the other “largely disconnected from the world of digital tools and services, both physically and psychologically.” We definitely fall into the first; we’ve used computers since 1981 and digital photo technology since 1998.

But the primary reason that the iPhones and Androids seem to have seized younger imaginations — 24/7 access to the Web and the unbounded information it purveys — seems much less compelling to us. Many of us spend our days within arm’s reach of a “real” computer with a nice, big monitor, a cozy mouse and a cat or two who insist on curling up on the keyboard. We cotton to our tablets and Kindles, too, with screens that don’t have to be set to “old person” to be read.

Compared with Russ’ faithful (now departed) flip phone, trusting that a 3-by-5-inch slab of computer gadgetry will have all the answers doesn’t necessarily represent an upgrade. As he’s long told me, it’s actually a step down … and it doesn’t fit as well in his pocket.

What about being temporarily unplugged from the Internet “hive mind,” as antique phone users must be? Russ contends that isn’t problematic. Not only that. It’s a big part of why he loved his “dumb phone.” Like most of our generation, he prefers — how shall I say this? — to actually know stuff himself.

What finally forced the old coot to change, then? Those dadblasted whippersnappers! He’s yielded the ever-lonelier high ground because our younger friends — and this includes members of our family — are losing the ability to use a telephone-type telephone. If we want to keep in touch, we have to improvise.

Have you noticed this, too? While telemarketers and robocalls were busy ruining the utility of our good old land-locked phone lines, our own kids were switching to fingers from vocal cords. It’s no surprise. They grew up communicating with friends after school on America Online and Instant Messenger, then easily slipped into texting. They built their teen identities on MySpace, flourished on Facebook and now have moved on to ever-odder hubs like Yik Yak.

The Web has always been their Encyclopedia Brittanica —  and Google their guide … the reason, incidentally, why younger adults now have such trouble with alphabetical order and consider maps a mystery.

Change is good. That’s fine. To each, his or her own. But when a technology stands between people, rather than bringing them together, Russ does make a persuasive point. When we eat out, we talk about young couples around us who dine alone, together. No eye contact. No conversation. Both are mesmerized by smartphones. For their sake, at least, we hope they’re texting each other.

Collisions are on the rise. Crossing the MSUM campus, a majority of students — and teachers — navigate heads down, focused solely on their phones. It’s fun to startle them with a cheery “hello” just to see them jump. I’m amazed more don’t stumble into the traffic, where they’d be easy prey for equally distracted drivers who are, themselves, texting behind the wheel.

Meanwhile, though, Russ is flourishing under our daughter’s tutelage. He’s thoughtfully selected unique ring tones for everyone who’s ever likely to call him — then promptly forgotten who is who. He’s spent a whole weekend searching for people to “friend.” He’s tapped out 1,000-word text messages and pounced on the cats for pix to post. Next thing you know, he’ll ditch his Nikons for duck-face selfies.

I’m happy about his new hobby. Really, I am. He’s not likely to misplace this new phone as long as it never leaves his hand … and I’ve never been able to read his handwriting anyway.