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BEVERLY BECKHAM

Is this progress? Only your smartphone knows for sure

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I am trying to go with the flow, roll with the punches, see all this as progress, and look for the silver lining.

And there is so much silver lining. I love my smartphone. I love all it can do. It’s a map. It gives me directions. It plays music. I can read books on it and watch movies and text my friends. It’s a flashlight and a camera and a clock and a timer and a tape recorder and a compass and a calculator and photo album and a bedtime fan. It teaches me how to pronounce words. It taught me how to play chess. It’s given me e-mail and texting and FaceTime and Zoom. Plus, it counts my steps, measures my heartbeat, and reminds me when it’s time to get up and move.

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How can I have an issue with a device that does all these things?

It’s the phone part of the smartphone I dislike. And here’s why: I don’t like talking on it. I don’t like the feel of it pressed up to my ear. I don’t like the way you can hear better in some places than others, how words get cut off when you walk from room to room, how calls get dropped and how so many people in public places walk around talking in LOUD VOICES on their speaker phones.

It’s at times like this, when a person is discussing rashes and flatulence in a very LOUD VOICE, in the mens’ section of Marshall’s, that I long for the old-fashioned, tethered to wires, rotary dial telephone, on which you would talk to your doctor about flatulence in private.

We had a rotary dial phone. It sat on the red Formica countertop in the kitchen of our small Cape. My best friend Rosemary had a rotary dial too, but hers sat on a telephone table made of shiny wood near her front door. I envied her the telephone table because it not only provided a place for the phone to live, it had a built-in seat for her. I had to pull up a kitchen chair whenever I wanted to talk. And talk we did, until my mother or hers would walk by, see us, and demand in a firm voice that we “Hang up right now!”

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Now there’s no one to tell us to hang up. We could talk for hours. And yet, we don’t. We text. Sometimes I tell Siri, “Text Rose,” and I speak to a robot instead of my oldest friend. It doesn’t make sense. This isn’t progress.

I also dislike the intrusiveness of the smartphone. It’s always on, tapping us on the shoulder, interrupting us, telling us how smart it is. Demanding that we pay attention to it, never mind that we’re in the middle of dinner, or a conversation, or there’s a toddler pulling at our sleeve. It beeps. It sings. It rings. It shudders. But this isn’t the fault of the phone. The fault is, as it always has been “in ourselves, that we are underlings,” and that we have made our smartphones our masters. It summons and we surrender our attention and our time. We could shut it off but we don’t. I don’t.

Robots, machines, pre-recorded messages. This isn’t the fault of the smartphone, either. But it’s the most frustrating and annoying part of communicating today. If you know the extension of the person you are trying to reach, press 1. For a dial by name directory, press 2. We are experiencing longer than usual delays. We are at lunch. If you received this message, our office is closed. If this is an emergency hang up and dial 911. Robots and pre-recordings and virtual assistants and bad music and waiting on hold only to be disconnected and have to start the whole process again? How is this progress?

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But maybe it is progress. Maybe the sounds of ringtones, smartphones at the dinner table, the speech of virtual assistants, and waiting on hold will be today’s kids’ fond memories. Maybe what I see as gullies are really tracks taking us to someplace better.

In the meantime, because I don’t like the feel of my smartphone against my ear, I am getting earbuds. And calling my friend, Rose.

Beverly Beckham’s column appears every two weeks. She can be reached at bev@beverlybeckham.com.