Check your purse, pocket, or hand. Smart phone? Yep. Called it. That hardly makes me a prophet. Unless you’re spelunking deep in a cavern, shepherding in the Australian Outback, or ski-trekking in Antarctica,* you expect the instant potential for human connection.
*(Initially, I included swimming as a fourth alliterative example of unreachability, but, I just learned, the iPhone 12 is rated for submersion up to half an hour in water a meter deeper than the Olympic diving well. That’s ear-poppingly deep—and a really long time to hold your breath.)
People I care about expect to reach me—and I expect the ability to reach them, yet a less explored aspect of these modern wonders is how connection potential has altered how we live in our own minds. And that affect things like loneliness, risk-taking, and identity.
In writing Covered With Snow, these issues came to fascinate me as I re-immersed myself in the late 1960s—an era I lived through as a child. Yet the incremental nature of all the changes makes it hard to take in the scope of how different peoples’ inner lives were.
Whether you manage phone access and notifications loosely or tightly is not what I’m getting at. Even when powered off, your smartphone sits, waiting. I’m also not touching the horizon pool of web infotainment. That’s another post. Here’s my point. Fifty years ago, it was commonplace for friends and loved ones to be hard to reach—and for you to be hard to reach too.
If traveling, whom do you bother to inform where you plan to stay?
Having informed them, are you now less likely to alter your plans?
If you do change your plans, who do you take the trouble to call?
Who in your life expects a call? Who will be hurt if you don’t call?
If something big happens, where (and how quickly) can you find a pay phone to share good news—or to get help for something bad?
Great. You found a pay phone. Now, do you have a dime in your pocket? What? Only pennies and greenbacks? Where can you get change? (If dialing someone more than a few miles away, you would probably need several dimes, perhaps several quarters.) What if it’s Sunday, banks and stores closed? You will have to a friend or stranger to ask—or you will wait.
Once you find a pay phone, there might be a line. (We’re not going to talk about the disease potential of putting to your mouth something one thousand strangers yakked, spit, and drooled on.)
When at last your turn comes and you hear ringing on the other end, is the person you’re trying home? How will they know you’ve tried them? You will get your dime back, most likely, but then you’re back to square one. When will you try them again?
And let’s just say—without story spoilers—that an ordinary road emergency (or perhaps an extraordinary one) might play out very differently then versus now. How big a risk you are willing to take, and how much you think to prepare looks very different if you know that help is many hours or miles away.
These practical questions impact the subjective. Because we are forced into involuntary isolation less often now than in 1969, the discipline of private contemplation has atrophied. Today, if you’re uncomfortable in your own skin, human solace is just a few taps away.
(My wife notes that, a century or two further back, e.g., prior to the advent of wireless transmission, in earliest years of the twentieth century, or the telegraph, in the middle of the nineteenth, our expectations of access were even lower. Your contacts were largely those in your home and your town. You took it for granted that news of a loved-one making a long-distance sea voyage might be delayed for months. Had a beloved son made it safely to a foreign port or perished at sea? Until a letter arrived, who knew?
And that was part of the point. Only God knew. Sometimes, if only because there was no one else to call, we knew that we had to deal somehow with Him.