8-14 December 2021 | Telephone numbness: De-evolution from From the party line to the mobile Phone

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I’ll never forget that first beige Princess phone. It was mounted on a wall. A table wasn’t good enough for the Princess. I was 9 when we got the snooty Princess, mounted just above my head. It was about 1959, the time in America when everything seemed to be beige except Formica counters, which had boomerang designs all over them. We used to speculate there was only one boomerang-design Formica countertop salesman in the country who drove all over stopping at all the motels to sell them, and he made a fortune.

I just acquired a new phone a couple of weeks ago. Given my opinion on cell phones, it’s amazing that I’ve had to replace an old phone with a new one. What exactly am I doing with these cellphones? On principle, I am opposed to them. What’s the harm in simply receiving calls at home or at work? What was it about party lines that was so bad? So what if a phone line was shared by several people? You had to ask Mabel down the street to take a five-minute break from the phone to request a house visit from your doctor. It’s a big thing. What’s so inconvenient about that? What was wrong with conventional black table dial phones? They were ready to rip their hair out every time they had to wait for the dial to return after dialling an 8, 9 or 0 after hearing people talk about them now. It was never the case.


  • Then, all of a sudden, everyone had to have a cell phone. It was right at about the same time everyone had to have a personal computer (PC) and an email account. I could go for the PC and the squawky dial-up modem and the email account. The email account was an alternative to phones and postcards. Finally, progress. But then people said, that’s not enough, we have to have phones we can use anywhere, even on buses and McDonald’s. You know, the transit companies and fast food joints could have headed that nonsense off at the pass, right as it started, making it against the rules to talk on phones in buses and restaurants. They could have taken a stand for civility and common sense. But, no. Look what’s happened to civility and common sense since. Now people text and drive. One hand on the steering wheel, one hand texting and both eyes on the screen.

  • But back to Princesses. Times changed. It wasn’t too long before people got over the idea that wall-mounted Princesses were chic. The rotary dials were replaced by touch-tone dials. That helped, because then you could have the lightweight phones on a table and dial a number without the phone sliding all over the place. That was about the biggest problem anyone had with phones until the 1990s. Oh sure, it cost more than your grandmother’s weekly grocery bills to call long distance, but, so? You had a good excuse not to call your grandmother long distance. Nobody told her to move to the other side of the country, anyway. Send a postcard, grandma.

Yesterday I read a notice, on a clay tablet, in the lobby of my Seattle Housing Authority (SHA) building that announced that I was expected to update my cell phone number and provide my email address so they won’t have to notify me by means of notices on clay tablets any longer. So, every time some bureaucratic functionary kept in a pit in the basement of SHA headquarters gets lonely, I’ll have to hear my phone’s doodly-doodly-doo, cheerfully telling me an SHA master wants me to know something.

I held out until 2019, refusing to accept the idea I needed to be “connected” to the wider world of cell-phone dependence. I then joined the Eloi and became ready for harvest. After getting the new phone — at a discount — I needed to set it up to receive emails. As soon as I did, I discovered notification hell. Apparently the old phone wasn’t as advanced as the new phone, so I had somehow managed to trick the thing into not notifying me every time someone retweeted a Kanye West tweet.

Exactly what I always feared. Dr. Wes is the Real Change Circulation Specialist, but, in addition to his skills with a spreadsheet, he writes this weekly column about whatever recent going-ons caught his attention. Dr. Wes has contributed to the paper since 1994. Curious about his process or have a response to one of his columns? Connect with him at drwes@realchangenews.org.


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