There was a time when my phone rang almost constantly while I was at home, and my answering machine filled up with call-backs when I wasn’t — and I KNEW all these people and wanted to talk to most of them. I liked talking to them. That was then. Now my phone hardly rings at all, and when it does, I generally don’t even answer it. So, what happened between then and now?
Automated technology happened, which better enabled those annoying telemarketers to fill up your phone machine with messages during the day, and to interrupt your restful evenings with unsolicited pitches at home, especially during dinner-time. In order to facilitate compliance with the Telephone Consumer Protection Act of 1991, the Do-Not-Call Implementation Act of 2003 was signed into law by George W. Bush. The FTC’s Do-Not-Call registry list began that June. We all started signing up, but it wasn’t always easy to do. Success of the effort was sporadic at best, and temporary, since mechanisms for automated dialers and access to number directories expanded faster than the registry’s ability to keep up.
So then what happened? Mobile devices happened. First there were pagers and beepers — important tools of communication not only for emergency responders and those in vital need-to-reach positions, but soon enough for the self-styled-self-important everywhere, including drug dealers. High schools made “no pagers” part of student dress codes. (I know, I was teaching.) BlackBerry introduced its e-mail pager in 1999, then its phone in 2002, and CEOs everywhere rejoiced. President Obama loved his BlackBerry so much that, in spite of security concerns, he insisted before his inauguration that staff would have to “…pry it out of my hands.” (They didn’t and he kept it until 2016.)
Cloud computing happened next in 2006, the I-Phone was introduced in 2007, and the rest, as they say, is history. Not surprisingly, congress passed the Do-Not-Call Improvement Act of 2007, designed to extend the reach of registry regulations from landlines to fax machines to cell phones. It took effect in February, 2008, but it was too little too late. By then we were all “living in the cloud.” Social media and digital communication have defied regulation and dissolved personal restraint ever since. We now find ourselves constantly assaulted by telemarketers, text messages, and twitter tantrums on our cell phones, and incessant robo calls and messages on our landlines (if we still have them).
And that’s what happened between then and now.
Now don’t get me wrong: I love my I-Phone, my I-Pad, my I-Mac, even my outdated I-Pod. These products have offered I-Me safety, convenience, accessibility, and happiness. For us baby-boomers, the first generation to be generally proficient in technology and digital communications, electronic devices will prove to be even more of a godsend as we grow older. Loss of physical mobility will no longer mean a complete loss of independence and isolation in our own homes. We can (and do) stay connected to the world and with friends and family far away; we can (and do) manage routine chores such as shopping, banking and paying bills; we can (and do) entertain ourselves through movies, music, videos and books; and we can (and do) continue to learn and grow through on-line classes and tutorials. Why, we can even run a home-based business!
All this electronic convenience comes at a cost, however, for young and old alike. Ironically, while our computers and smart phones were supposed to enhance communication, the loss of the human touch in the quest for efficiency seems to have eroded it. I watch young people, ostensibly out on a dinner date, sitting with their faces to their cell phones instead of to each other; I see people in church spending much of the service texting on their smartphones; I find that business agreements are routinely done through e-mail, which in turn serves as the contract itself, sans signature. No one actually talks on the phone anymore, they don’t even leave voice mail, preferring to text instead. We’ve all lost our voices, literally and figuratively, in the abrupt, time-sensitive demands of simply “messaging.”
Psychologists and sociologists have long warned of the lack of development of mature language and interpersonal skills among those who confine themselves in a digital world, but that’s just the least of it. The explosion of social media has obliterated behavioral norms, invaded personal privacy, promulgated false information, encouraged bullies and voyeurs, and rendered the nuances of artful conversation and the civility of public discourse totally irrelevant. After all, it’s so much easier to be threatening, intrusive and obnoxious, even downright offensive, when you’re not face-to-face.
These days, rather than enhancing communication, it seems that living in the cloud has brought us into the fog — the fog of war between multiple factions: classes and cultures, men and women, liberals and conservatives, religious and secular, and on and on and on. We’re not only not communicating, many of us are hardly speaking to members of our own family!
Now as we enter the ridiculously premature campaign for the 2020 elections, we will be back to where we began, back to the intrusiveness of still more robo calls and messages from political organizations promoting candidates, fund-raising, and polling — ALL of which are exempt from the Do-Not-Call rules.
Oh well, the registry never really worked anyway…