By John Beckman • Guest Columnist
If Alexander Graham Bell were alive today he’d probably be carrying an iPhone. Based on Samuel Morse’s first telegraph sent via “Morse Code” in 1838, Mr. Bell and others began working on a “speaking telegraph” for voice communication over wires. On March 10, 1876 the 29-year-old Mr. Bell uttered his famous words; “Mr. Watson, come here — I want to see you!” He would be amazed at how far his invention has advanced and the many functions it can perform beyond calling to your assistant in the next room.
We chuckle today at the thought of turning a crank to contact Mabel at the switchboard and asking her to take our wire and plug it into another person’s connector so that we could chat. The automated switchboard put Mabel out of work when any customer could dial directly from their special number to any other number, as long as a wire had been stretched that far. When millions of miles of wire had been pulled across deserts, over mountains and under oceans, the touch-tone keypad replaced the rotary dial and all those old phones joined Mabel and the hand crank in the dusty pages of history.
Old man Bell would have been shocked in 1973 when the first “portable communication device”, based on two-way radio technology for taxis and police cars, made its first call from Motorola headquarters to AT &T’s Bell labs. The chunky “bag phones” with giant batteries, coiled cord and desk phone handset look downright prehistoric when compared to the sleek, compact designs of today. But the idea of bouncing your words off a satellite whirling around in space to anybody anywhere (who had a bag phone), well, that was downright Buck Rogers stuff for a country full of Richard Nixon, sit-ins and Vietnam.
Technology has continued its relentless march to where most elementary school kids can show you how to change the settings on your phone or download the latest “apps.” I was slow to adapt to cell phones, preferring to use the corner payphone when I was away from home and felt the need to “reach out and touch someone.” When I started spending a good bit time in the hills of Jackson County in the mid-1990’s, my wife insisted I get one in case of emergencies. I got an analog “candy bar” phone, and of course, it wasn’t long before analog was no more and I had to adapt to this fancy digital system, with a lot more buttons to consider and try to understand how they could help me.
Fifteen years have passed and still I have failed to keep pace with the constantly changing world of handheld communications. I’m still using the same phone I got for free when I switched plans years ago. It doesn’t take pictures, play music or text (which I’ve still never done). It pretty much just makes calls, which is why I thought I got one in the first place. I’ve never used the calculator or planner, and the “To Do Scheduler” remains empty — a reassuring reference when the rest of my plates seem overflowing with projects. My techie friends have often tried to convince me of the advantages of the latest technology, urging me to abandon my Luddite ways and catch up to the present. I remind them that I still cut my own firewood, keep chickens and grow a lot of my own food, and believe I have little use for a Droid, a Blackberry or whatever comes next to “simplify” my life. I’ve become accustomed to shrugs of disbelief and headshakes when the topic comes up in conversation.
I was visiting with some friends who are all about cutting edge phone apps and was amazed at what these little slick boxes can do, for other people that is. By now, most folks know that they can control the lights in your house, adjust your thermostat, and start the bath water from their phone. Of course you know that you can also do your banking, find anything anywhere, get yourself un-lost, learn a new language or trade commodity futures in foreign currencies by mashing a few buttons. You can unlock your wife’s car from anywhere when she loses her keys (press the unlock button on her spare set into your cell phone while she holds hers next to the car). Feeling nervous? No problem, you can snap virtual bubble wrap on your phone until you calm down. By blowing across your phone and fingering the screen you can create your own live music, along with thousands of other “useful” functions. In theory, these time-savers free up precious moments for us, allowing us more time to gaze across the mountains, probably thinking lofty thoughts, and of more things our phones can do for us.
With phones being able to do just about everything, I’m sometimes nervous about the future utility of men. But I reassure myself that until there is an “app” to take out the trash, lift heavy objects, and remember to put the toilet seat down when we’re finished, that there will still be a use for us in the world, as long as we have a signal and our batteries can still hold a charge.
John Beckman is a farmer, builder and part-time technophobe living in Cullowhee.