I was two and a half years old before I ever saw my mother without a telephone held up to her ear. The sight so terrified me that I ran and hid and refused to come out from under my bed until my dad dragged me out by my feet. This particular trauma may also have something to do with the fact that I did not start talking until I was three and a half.
Okay, I exaggerate, but only a little.
The telephone was my enemy, it was not just a ferocious rival for my mother’s attention—it was clearly the undisputed victor. My mother could happily chatter into that strange black device for hours on end. And no one could interrupt her. Even a dirty diaper had to wait before she would change it. After I became ambulatory, she assumed I needed even less attention. Communication with her was possible only through the telephone and I didn’t have one. I couldn’t even ask permission to go outside and play while she was on the phone. She simply ignored me or waved me off, her way of letting me know that I would always be less important than the disembodied voice on the other end of the line. The Mah Jong club and the PTA girls were more important than her own experiment in genetic recombinance.
I did finally get some small revenge. Years later, when I finally had a house of my own, a phone of my own, and an answering machine of my own—I never picked up when she called. I always made her leave a message. And if it was an angry one, I didn’t return the call.
Eventually, I figured out that it wasn’t my mom I was angry at, she had a heart as big as her mouth. No, it was the telephone itself I despised and the effect it has on human relationships. The telephone creates only an illusion of connection. In truth, it creates distance, isolation, and even its own flavor of alienation. It’s a substitute for face-to-face contact and easily becomes a way of avoiding it.
But in my professional career, there were times when I needed to stay connected to colleagues, so I bought one of the earliest cellphones, a Motorola StarTac. It was pre-digital and it was kinda bulky, almost too big for a pocket, but it flipped open like a Star Trek communicator, and it provided me with my first insights that an electronic tsunami was about to transform all of our lives.
The first call I ever received on my cellphone happened while I was browsing in Book Soup on Sunset blvd. I was so excited I almost dropped the damn thing. It was a wrong number. Yes, as convenient as the cellphone could be, it also allowed inconvenience to follow you around too.
The second insight occurred while I was traveling. I had been invited to the east coast to give a speech to a science fiction group. Before the talk, a group of us went out for lunch. While we were walking down the streets of the city of brotherly love, my phone rang. It was my mom. “Would you like to come for dinner?” “I’d love to,” I replied. “But I’m in Philadelphia.” And that was the moment that she and I both realizd that the cellphone had collapsed a large part of the spacetime continuum—distance was irrelevant.
If you’re under forty, or maybe fifty, you probably aren’t aware or don’t remember that the cost of phone calls was once determined by how long a wire you had to shout through. There were local calls, toll calls (outside your local zone), and long distance calls. Long distance was expensive—so expensive that you only called long distance when someone died or had a baby. (There’s an ironic symmetry there.) On the day that cellphone carriers began providing nationwide calling without long-distance charges, they made distance irrelevant—and time zones too. I have gotten calls from Hong Kong and Glasgow and Istanbul during my sleeping hours. That my phone allows me to be an equal nuisance to others does not mitigate anything.
But the finest call ever made on that Motorola StarTac happened in September 16, 1992, and it wasn’t my call, it was my son’s. My son’s adoption had been approved, but I hadn’t yet figured out how to tell him I was going to be his dad. So that Saturday, when I picked him up for his overnight visit I very carefully broached the subject. “We have so much fun together, I wish you could stay with me all the time.” He replied, “You could adopt me.” (It wasn’t just precociousness. The kids learn quickly how the system works.) He then proceeded to tell me that I had to ask permission of his caseworker and if she said yes, he could move in with me. So I flipped open the phone, called the caseworker and repeated the conversation to her, so she would understand that I was “asking permission.” Then she asked me to pass the phone to Sean.
He’d never seen a cellphone before, but he held it up to his ear and nodded his way through a series of “uh-huh” responses. Then he said, “Goodbye” and closed the phone. He looked at me and deadpan reported, “She said yes.” And that’s how I ended up adopting a Martian. (Shameless plug: Rent the movie. It stars John Cusack and Bobby Coleman.)
That Motorola StarTac is long gone, replaced by a Razr 3 flip phone. That one eventually gave way to a Samsung Memoir. I gave the Memoir to Sean when I upgraded to a Samsung Vibrant.
But I still hate telephones in principle.
Would you put a bell next to your bed that anyone in the world could ring, any time they want, just by pressing a button, would you pay $200 or $400 for that bell? You think not? You already did. It’s your cellphone.
Carrying a cellphone in your pocket guarantees that just about anyone you know (and a lot of people you don’t know) can interrupt you, no matter where you are or what you’re doing, any time of the day, and almost any place you go.
Our cellphones are electronic leashes. They keep us tethered to a thousand little connections. Just as the Lilliputians tied down Gulliver with a thousand little cables, we tie ourselves down with all the little connections and apps we carry around.
But we cannot give up our attachments. I discovered that the day I could not get my mother to stop talking on the phone long enough even to look at the pictures I was laboriously drawing at the kitchen table. (And yes, I do carry grudges for a long time. Why do you even bother to ask?) That hasn’t changed in all the decades since then. The attachments have just gotten more pernicious and intricate, more colorful and enticing.
Of all the devices that we enslave ourselves to, as much as we love our cars and our computers and our televisions, I suspect that most people would give up all the others before they would give up their smartphones. Look around—everywhere you go, people are tap-tapping away, looking up restaurants and stock prices and movie times, checking their email, their facebook pages, their twitter feeds, listening to music or watching videos, looking up stuff on the web, playing Sudoko or Holdem, even occasionally reading a book. And we pay a price for that—we forget where we are. We lose touch with physical reality. We forget to taste the food we’re eating. We forget who we’re with. We become alienated—ultimately unconscious to the inherent rudeness of checking out from our own immediate relationships.
In the days before we had that kind of portability, we had a different kind of human relationship. We got to be with people without interruption. We could watch the movie and stay inside the experience. Nobody was texting two rows ahead or chatting away in the row behind.
Without phones in our pockets and our purses, we would talk to each other. Restaurants were islands of sustenance. We could share our meals with genuine intimacy. Walking down the street, we didn’t have to listen to other people having conversations with unseen partners. Without our own electronic distractions, we could actually look around and see where we were. We could look in store windows and read restaurant menus and make little jokes about the things we saw around us. We could be in the moment we were in.
It’s not that I’m against smartphones. But there’s a price we’re paying for that convenience. We’re training ourselves out of one of the best parts of being human—actual face-time: being genuinely connected to each other in person.
The last time I ever spoke to my mother on the phone was just after she’d moved into assisted living. I called her and asked how she was feeling. Her hearing was failing and she was starting to get confused. I tried to tell her it was her son calling, but she kept saying, “Thank you, but I’m not interested,” and finally hung up on me. I never tried to talk to her on the phone again. I had to visit in person instead. And that was a blessing—it was far more real than any phone call could ever have been. So in the end, as at the beginning, my mother taught me the most important lesson to be learned about the telephone: Get off it. Be with the person you’re with.
Over here, if I’m on the phone and my son needs my attention for anything, I’ve learned to say, “Hold on a minute, please. My son needs to ask me something.” My son appreciates it and the person I’m talking to usually respects me for it.
It’s the best lesson I learned from my mom, even if I had to learn it the hard way.
David Gerrold is a Hugo and Nebula award-winning author. He has written more than 50 books, including “The Man Who Folded Himself” and “When HARLIE Was One,” as well as hundreds of short stories and articles. His autobiographical story “The Martian Child” was the basis of the 2007 movie starring John Cusack and Amanda Peet. He has also written for television, including episodes of Star Trek, Babylon 5, Twilight Zone, and Land Of The Lost. He is best known for creating tribbles, sleestaks, and Chtorrans. In his spare time, he redesigns his website, www.gerrold.com