By Bernie Schmitt
As we head into the third decade of the new millennium, old standbys like the telephone (the fixed, landline variety), are fading into obscurity.
Most young people who will come of age in the 2020s will never have the collective family experience of hearing a telephone’s distinctive ring, or understand the unbridled joy of hearing someone announce, “It’s for you!”
Before we were tethered to the technology, the telephone was revered and had its own place in the home, usually on a special cabinet or corner table, and sometimes affixed to a wall. Some people had specialized “desks,” phone furniture (wooden or metal), that included seats for the phone user. The telephone had a permanent place in our homes.
Our newest generation did not get to experience the anticipation of a hopeful phone call from a boy or girl, and my granddaughter never sat on the floor “twisting a cord around her finger while talking to her best friend,” as Julia Cho recently wrote in The Atlantic. Phrases such as “I’ll get it,” or “He’s not home right now,” are antiquated and virtually unknown.
We still have a landline phone. It is a beige, push-button relic from the 1980s. We still have the same phone number we’ve had for more than 30 years. Relatives whom we don’t hear from often can still reach us over the miles of years, and we don’t have to worry about how many bars we have left if the power goes out.
What’s interesting is that when that telephone actually rings, my granddaughters rarely pick it up. It rings and rings and rings, until one of us old people runs to get it. The sad thing is that most of the calls we receive are sellers, scammers, or surveyors, with a handful of recorded computer voice warnings thrown in.
The federal government says that most people in the United States are using cell phones, pushing the landline telephone further into the dust bin of history. For awhile the phrase “I got rid of my landline” was heard frequently as changes were taking place, but that was a few years ago. Now people are surprised to learn I still have a landline telephone.
This was illustrated quite vividly when my granddaughter’s friend (a fellow college student) visited this fall: “You have one of THOSE phones!” he exclaimed, when it unexpectedly rang. He peered at it carefully from afar, as if it was going to jump out and bite him. He had never known anyone who had one.
Telephone directories also are nearly extinct. Directories published names, addresses, and telephone numbers. At one time they were reasonably accurate, too. When I was in high school, a visiting newspaper reporter told us that the two most important things on a journalist’s desk were a dictionary and a telephone directory.
Not anymore. These days a few yellow pages are published (young people don’t know what these are, either), but comprehensive telephone directories are a thing of the past. Cell phones have replaced home phones, and the Internet has replaced telephone directories. If you need a plumber or the number for the veterinarian, all you have to do is Google it.
Back in the day (OK, boomer), getting a phone call wasn’t so secret. Years ago, a telephone call was something special, a shared family experience in most cases, and that simple ring seemed to bring us together. Nowadays, we are cordoned off into our own little niches of anonymity.
The art of basic conversation, while not extinct, has been diminished and is changing. Most of the time true conversation happens only when necessary. People don’t want to bother with actually talking to another person when a few cryptic letters punched into the screen will do. “Texting is so much easier,” a student once told me. “Why talk when you can text?”
I understand the convenience and the extraordinary benefit of having a mobile telephone. When one is stranded along a lonely highway, or has an unfortunate emergency, cell phones are as much a blessing as they are life-saving.
These days, though, a phone is much more than a way to talk to one another from different locations. Today’s smart phones are a part of, indeed encompass, all aspects of our lives. I will never forget being in the drive-through lane at McDonald’s and seeing the clerk reach out to scan a customer’s smart phone for payment!
I sometimes miss the freedom of being without a cell phone, when a fixed home or office phone was all we had. We managed to get things done just the same.