Thursday, January 16, 2014

We're So Smart

In a week that saw a youth shot and killed at a Chicago bus stop reportedly for his cell phone, and two college students drowned in the Chicago river trying to retrieve a dropped cell phone, I’ve concluded we treasure these gadgets way too much. Calling them merely phones, however, understates their importance and value to us. They’re smart, these phones, and have become our link to knowledge and information, everyone we know, and in many ways the world around us. I think they’ve changed us.

I own an I Phone and have set it so that little sounds come from it to alert me to its activity. When I get a text a very short whistle, a single rising note from low pitch to high, like a person’s whistle through teeth and pursed lips, tells me it’s arrived. It’s a tiny sound. When I send a text the reverse whistle, high to low, lasting only part of a second tells me it’s on its way. I get e mails on my phone as well, but only when I log onto the Outlook program. When they come in a sound like an old fashioned typewriter announces their arrival. Voice mail messages arrive with the sound of a now obsolete teletype machine. And finally my one and only ring tone that alerts me to some real telephone caller waiting for me to answer, in person, with my voice, is the sound of muted horns that are used on fox hunts. The play a five note ditty, a half note and four quarter notes I think, that seems to say “tally ho.” I picked these sounds for no particular reason except that I like them, and I think of them as my own. Actually they’re stock sounds among a big list of sounds any I Phone user can choose from.

My wife, who also has an I phone, and I had to coordinate our sounds because at first we found we both had the same alert for incoming texts. When we were together and heard the little rising whistle we thought we both had received a text. It was annoying. She chose to change her incoming text alert to a little bell. Now when we’re alone in the house and we hear the sounds we know which of us is being supplied information via which medium. We get a lot more texts these days than we do phone calls. It’s happened gradually, but it’s a definite trend. It comes I think from people not answering phone calls.

It started with our kids. They never seemed to answer when we called, but they would eventually call us back.

“I see you called this morning,” they would say, calling us in the evening.

“Yeah, why didn’t you answer?” They would always have a reason of some kind, flimsy maybe, until finally my daughter admitted she usually has turned her ringer off.

“I check it often enough that I see when someone calls. I can’t always call back. But if you need something right away text me.” Phone etiquette no longer demands answering immediately via voice.

So we found ourselves texting our kids simply because they respond more quickly. They can text back anywhere, in a meeting, in the bathroom, on the L train. Texting doesn’t bother other people, its private, and you tend to get right to the point. It’s always more direct than a voice call, and shorter. I prefer texting now. I text rather than make a voice call most of the time, to nearly everyone. But then I’ve always preferred writing over talking. That’s why I’ve always loved e mail. But e mail with the kids? Pretty old stuff. If I send them something by e mail I text them to let them know so they check it. An effective way to contact a young person these days? Send a Face Book message. They live on Face Book. To tell the truth, I reside there quite often. No need to message one or a group of people there. You can talk to all your friends at once, along with those people you call friends but barely know.

And it’s not only communicating one to one that makes our smart phones so important to us. They are our guides. Gone are the days of detailed directions for smart phone users. We saw a lot of out of town relatives over the holidays and when they needed to go here or there we gave them old fashioned step by step directions like these we explained to our nephew.

“You take 80 to Route 47. At the top of the ramp go South, which is right, through the sort of North end of the business district, not the downtown you know, the new stuff up by the interstate. Follow that main drag till you go over a bridge. It’s not the Illinois River bridge, it’s more of a viaduct over railroad tracks and stuff. As soon as you’re off the bridge, at the very first right, take that street. Their house is about eight blocks down on the right. You’ll see their white van parked in the driveway. They have a concrete goose dressed up in clothes, probably as Mrs. Santa Claus. The house has a glassed in porch.”

My nephew, patient and politely attentive through the whole explanation, replied by saying

“Thanks but all I need is the street address. My phone tells me where to turn. Just give me the street and number.”

We don’t always know the street and number. We know how to get there. But that’s no longer necessary for smart phone users. Neither do they need phone books, maps, encyclopedias, dictionaries, the Physician’s Desk Reference, newspapers, magazines, books, flash lights, cameras, or watches. You name it and it’s available on your smart phone. You can look up anything at anytime from anywhere by using your smart phone. The format may not be convenient. You may prefer to look something up on your computer screen or tablet, because it’s easier to view, but you can get anything on your smart phone, especially when it is connected to Wi Fi.

Last spring we had a big party with young couples in attendance and their kids. Those that didn’t bring kids brought dogs, and some both, but that’s another story. So a five year old is in my kitchen, sitting at the counter flipping his finger over the screen of his I Pad while I’m making coffee.

“Mr. McClure?” he asked politely.


“Does your house have Wi Fi?”

“Yes it does.”

“May I have your password?”

His digital experience (I have no idea what he was doing or why he wanted to be connected) and his life in general was, I guess, going to be enhanced in some way if he was connected to the internet. So I gave him my password. There is no reason not to give those you know, especially a cute five year old boy, access to the internet in your house. Understand that at five he knew independently how to log on to my network, plug in the password, connect and go on his merry digital way. It blew me away. I don’t know why. He’s grown up with the internet while I’m still catching on.

Actually I’m no less hooked than that five year old. My smart phone is with me constantly, except when it is charging, which is every night. That puts it within my reach every waking hour. I think I’m not unlike a lot of people. It’s my most useful tool, and most used. Without it I feel out of touch.

I visited my doctor this week and he and I had something fairly important to discuss about my health. I like this physician because he talks to me directly and personally. We were sitting across from each other in the little exam room, discussing something private, trying together to solve a sort of riddle posed by my aging body. He was asking me about symptoms and I was answering as carefully and accurately as I possibly could. At one point he said

“There’s a reason you need to watch out for this you know. There’s a possibility this could…”

And as the word “could” came out of his mouth a short rising whistle, not a second long, went off in the little exam room, interrupting the conversation.

“Is that your phone?” I asked.

“Yes, the damn thing. I swear I’m going to throw it away. That means I got an e mail.”

“I have the same sound. It could mean I got a text.” We both checked our phones. He had gotten an e mail. We finished our conversation. I’m going to be OK by the way.

“You can’t throw that phone away doc,” I said when we had finished with our anatomy discussion. “You have to respond when people need you, and now you can be reached all the time.”

“Yeah, but I hate it for that very reason.”

“Look, I keep my phone on all the time too even though I’m retired and don’t even have to respond anymore. I choose to. It could be my kids, my wife, one of my friends, someone else in my family. They stay in touch with me and I do the same. It’s the way we live now.”

“Yeah, but it’s sad in a way isn’t it?”

“It is. But it’s also good. I’ve never been in touch with so many people nor communicated better or more often. I think it makes us closer. It’s a trade off, I admit, but I choose frequent contact.”

“I know,” he said. “But it can still be a giant pain.”

He tapped an order for a medication into the laptop in the room and e mailed it to my pharmacy. He also wrote an order for a simple diagnostic test and e mailed that off to another part of the organization.

“You can go to the lower floor and get that test done right now before you leave if you like. They have my order already.”

That was never easier. I read the results of my blood tests now on line via e mail, not that I know what they mean. This same outfit sends me e mail reminders of appointments. My credit union sends me a text when my account goes below a level I determine. I can send a text back which prompts yet another text with my last few transactions. The world as we know it is not going digital, it’s already there. The train has left the station. We’re plugged in. And if you’re not plugged in now with via a smart phone, I predict you soon will be.

You are either reading this blog through a link in an e mail or as a link in a Face Book post. The device you are using could be your smart phone. But whatever device you use please stay in touch. You can comment on the Face Book post which brought you the blog link. If you received this piece via e mail you can close the blog link and simply reply to the e mail. Or you can comment on my blog itself in the comment section. However you communicate I’d love to hear from you. It’s easy. Have a good weekend.

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