Lines and Silver

If you’re thinking about silver linings, here’s one to ponder: waiting in lines has, with certain exceptions, disappeared during the pandemic.  Yes, some people waiting in line to be tested, others to be inoculated.  Early on lines were long to buy toilet paper.  By and large, however, waiting in lines has ceased for many of us.  For me that’s a silver lining.  Even from my youngest days I’ve found waiting in line problematic.  Not that I think I’m more important than other people—not at all—my mind keeps itself pretty active and standing in line has been one of the more difficult times to keep it engaged.  I generally keep a book with me.  The lack of mass-market paperbacks in the categories I tend to read, however, makes having a book in your jacket pocket difficult.

People standing in line are often surly.  It’s not always a great place to strike up a conversation, to improve your mind.  It is the epitome of wasted time.  Not just for me, but for everyone involved.  Learning to live mostly at home has greatly reduced that wasted time.  Interestingly, many people have reported being bored with their extra time.  Others of us find this small windfall just enough to keep in place as we continue sprinting along.  Regardless, the line waiting absence has been one silver lining.  When I was a student I used to call waiting in line a theological problem.  What I believe I meant was that time should not be wasted and your options were severely limited by standing in a queue.

For many people, I suspect, the smartphone has addressed the issue even before the pandemic came.  My smartphone has never been that much of a comfort to me, when it comes to time.  Although I’m on social media I don’t spend a whole lot of time on it.  It can easily become yet another way of spending time I don’t have to squander.  Reading ebooks on a small screen doesn’t really lead to any sense of accomplishment for me.  Perhaps I think about it too much, but it seems that real goals are met in the real world.  Ah, but this is meant to be a silver lining post, the lack of lines.  As the pandemic slowly dies down, queues will return.  Books won’t have grown any smaller in the meantime.  Perhaps I could use the time wisely by learning to explore the wonders of the universe in my pocket.  Just after, however, I finish this book in my hands.


Home Phone?

I wonder if anyone’s done a study on how cell phones affect our psyches.  The other day my wife upgraded her phone.  What with this being technology and all, the setting up rendered both her old and new phones useless so we would have to go back to our dealer.  Since she has to drive to work and I don’t, I gave her my phone for the day.  I use my phone little on most days.  Soon, however, I began to feel very isolated.  Anyone could reach me by email or landline, but I was without my cell phone for about 10 hours and I grew edgy.  What had happened to me?  Was I experiencing withdrawal from tech?  My smartphone is with me all the time and I’ve come to depend on it being there, even if I don’t use it.  Is this healthy?

That night we were back at the dealer’s shop.  One of the techies was trying to help us and because of the uber-security state in which we live, he had to text me a passcode to get into my wife’s phone (it’s my name on the joint account).  When his text didn’t come through he asked if he could see my device.  I handed him my iPhone 4S and he acted as if I’d just passed him a human-alien hybrid baby.  As if he’d never seen anything so antiquated.  In all seriousness he said, “You have to upgrade.  Soon this phone will no longer work.”  I have to wonder about the extortion of companies that sell you expensive devices then force you to upgrade when your salary doesn’t keep up with inflation.  My old phone does what I need it to do.  A new one will be capable of much more for which I won’t use it.  I work at home and I don’t give my cell number out to work colleagues.

There’s a psychological study in here.  I don’t want people who don’t know me personally calling my cell.  That’s what a landline is for.  Not only that, but my hours are unconventional.  Even people I know forget and send me texts after 8 p.m., waking me from a night’s sleep.  You see, the phone is always present, and those of us who don’t conform must pay the price.  The thought of being out of contact with others feels like solitary confinement.  Tech companies have given us tweeting presidents and bosses that can reach us at any hour.  And we happily comply.  I appreciate the welcome text or call from family or friend, but when it comes to work and other necessities, I still prefer to receive a letter.  Maybe I need to see a shrink.


Great Communicators

Perhaps you’ve encountered it too. You’re in a major city. You’re in a hurry. The person in front of you is plodding along, staring at the device in his or her hand and you can’t get around him or her. You’re being held up by technology. I just want to get to the Port Authority before my bus leaves. The late Jonathan Z. Smith called cell phones “an absolute abomination.” I wouldn’t go quite that far—my bus pass, after all, is on my phone, and I’ve been saved from embarrassing conversations on the desk phone in my cubicle by being able to walk away and find a quiet corner in a corridor where I can talk freely—but I do see his point. While technology has had many benefits, in real life it can slow you down.

A news source I recently read said that heavy smart phone users are more prone to psychological problems than, say, those people who live raw in the bush of southern Africa. Phones isolate as well as connect. Instead of asking somebody for directions, you can turn to your monotoned electronic friend and find out. What you lose is the nuance of human communication. On my first interview in New York City—I was still living in Wisconsin at the time—I was disoriented. Which way was Fifth Avenue? I asked a stranger on the street and learned something in the process. New Yorkers weren’t the rude people I’d been told to expect. In fact, I quite frequently see strangers asking others for directions. I’ve never seen someone refuse to help in those circumstances. Although I’m in a hurry if someone asks me “which direction is Penn Station?” I’ll stop and try to help. It’s a people thing.

One of the distorting lenses of a large city is the acceleration of time. Many of us depend on public transit in its many forms, and none of it is terribly reliable. Being late through no fault of your own is part of the territory in a city like New York. It’s become harder to stay on time because of smartphones, however. A few years back I saw it with the Pokémon Go release. Groups of phoners wandering around, slowing the flow of foot traffic on sidewalks that are somehow never wide enough. If only I could communicate with people! How does one do that when they’re riveted to the device in their hand? I wouldn’t say they’re an absolute abomination, but I agree with the dear departed Smith that there are hidden costs to being so connected that we can’t talk to one another. I would say more, but I think my phone’s ringing.

Even Thoth can’t help walking and texting.


The Consequences of Being Smart

A few years ago my wife bought me a smart phone. Being lifelong Mac users, the iPhone was the model of choice. I don’t have the intense connectivity issues of the young, I guess, so I don’t use it for texting or surfing the net. It’s great for holding bus tickets, though, and navigating in unfamiliar places. I’ve grown quite used to the convenience of having the internet in my pocket. Such a smart device. Naturally, one smart device in a family will breed others. We all have iPhones now. Like most Apple products they’re hermetically sealed and have few moving parts. The user need not know what goes on inside. It’s the very definition of a black box.

Then my wife’s phone went rogue. Suddenly it stopped picking up 3G signals (these are older models, after all). Now, you can’t just open up a black box and look inside. Even if you could I’d have no idea what I would be looking at. So I called tech support. My wife keeps music and photos on her phone, so we didn’t want to lose anything. Little did I realize that I’d just committed two-and-a-half hours of my life to phone repair. Before I was done, I would come to know six discrete people at differing levels of intimacy as we worked together to figure out what might make a black box tick. I spoke to Apple support and our service carrier. They put us back through to Apple support, and they had to call us back because the process was a lengthy one. In the end, it worked. The phone was restored to its former glory, but I had lost one of the very brief evenings I have.

One of the typical sci-fi, or apocalyptic, scenarios is the person or civilization that builds something s/he it can’t control. Like a biblical plague, we’ve unleashed a technology that makes our lives oh so much easier but ever so much more complicated. In addition to our professional expertise, we all need to understand, to some degree, technology. Technology and deity have begun to share blurred lines. It’s as if many believe it will save us. At the end of the day, however, we have to assert that it is here to serve us. We are the gods and technology represents the lowly beings we’ve created to do our bidding. Then again, those who read ancient stories know what happens when the gods create a servant race. I’m lucky that all it cost me was two-and-a-half hours, and not some even greater sacrifice.