I am old enough to remember houses with a little grotto built into a wall, a place where you could unfailingly find a telephone. It was black, had a dial, and up top, a receiver the size of a turkey drumstick, the whole thing heavy enough for good use as a murder weapon. Not that anyone ever did that. It never appeared in the game of “Clue” along with the candlestick because a thick electrical cord attached the telephone to the wall. You couldn’t move it, and its connections to unseen depths in your house were known only to AT&T.
In those days there was never any question about your having to discover what the problem was when things didn’t work: Is it the network? The software? The service provider? An unstable connection? A glitch that will disappear when you reboot?
Never mind all that. You called the experts at Ma Bell and they came and fixed it. They owned the phone; you only rented it.
I also remember arguments at the dinner table over obscure facts of history, or the seasons of bird migrations, or certain goat breeds, or who was the 15th president, or the author of “Candide.” One of us kids would be assigned to go get the encyclopedia off the shelf and look in volume G for goats, or U for U.S., which would answer the question with authority. If it wasn’t found there, bets would be laid, reputations put on the line, and one of us would go to the library and search out the answer in aisles that smelled of oak, leather, and musty paper.
All these debates were conducted with fiery tones of voice, punctuated by insults and laughter and wild gestures. Eyes met and knew one another and assessed the others’ reliability. No one stared at their phones for an answer — because the only phone was in the hallway in its grotto. Alexa and Siri and Google hadn’t yet been born.
Now I have an iPhone. I can carry it with me everywhere, except I can’t really because women’s jeans or slacks typically have no pockets, or ridiculously tiny pockets, or even fake pockets stitched closed so as to slim down one’s hips. So, my phone has a tendency to wander here and there. I will hear it ringing from some distant spot but rarely for long enough for me to actually find it. Instead, I must request that my husband phone me from his iPhone. It’s one of his favorite jobs.
Thus, I do find my phone from time to time and try to keep my eye on it. For one thing It must be charged regularly, and if I don’t remember, it will up and die in the middle of a conversation without warning. Right now, I’m fighting off repeated messages from my phone that tell me there’s a new IOS update, which I estimate is the 73rd since I first purchased it.
I don’t want to update but may ultimately be worn down by my iPhone’s persistence. I don’t want an update because I will then be offered a tour of 87 new features I never asked for and would never have dreamed up and don’t have time for. Nor would I ever be able to find the one I might possibly want, located in 69 possible places. There are no paper glossaries or maps for finding your way through the dunes of digital geography.
If I let my guard down, and plug my phone in to charge it overnight, the update can happen automatically. This has led to my phone ringing on my computer screen, without my knowing how this happened, or which option it is, called by what name. And followed by another update that stopped it without my being the least bit involved. I am beginning to feel a little murderous about it, but because we’re in a pandemic the only candidate for this would be my husband trapped here with me — and then how in god’s name would I ever find my phone?
Texts from strangers and calendar reminders that butt into my phone calls at key moments feel a lot like having a toddler again, only not a toddler so cute as my own. It’s the bratty neighbor kid who waits until I’m on the phone listening for some detail to yell at me, demanding my attention, interrupting my train of thought.
It’s a slow train, admittedly. But here is a question that haunts me. Who exactly was it, how OLD was the person, who thought it would be a really good idea for us to have to type out messages on a tiny keyboard on our phones? Whose is the artificial intelligence so smart it will auto-correx a word choice of “corner” to “condom” and make you the family laughingstock?
Remember, we can still use our human-hand-sized computer keyboards to send out an email. We can even more slowly pen a message onto a piece of paper and then stick it in an envelope, lick a stamp, and walk it to the post office, where a human takes it from your hand, smiling, and remembers your name, seldom offering to update your options.
You can get a lot done when there are days between messages, when there are silent spots in your life like little grottos. These can hold and anchor deep and heavy thoughts about bird migrations, breeds of goat, and who exactly was it who wrote “Candide”? Would the answer be in Volume C?
Rickey Gard Diamond is a columnist at Ms. Magazine and editor/co-publisher at Rootstock Publishing. Her most recent book, “Screwnomics: How the Economy Works Against Women and Real Ways to Make Lasting Change,” was a 2019 Independent Book Publishers award-winner and, along with her fiction, “Second Sight: A Novel” and “Whole Worlds Could Pass Away: Collected Stories,” is widely available at bookstores and online. She lives and writes in Montpelier.