Years ago, when I was a young reporter at a daily newspaper, cell phones — then called “car phones” — were just starting to become widely available, and the belt-clip fashion of the day was the pager.
You remember pagers, don’t you? Maybe not. Frank asked me the other day what a pager was after hearing one mentioned on a rerun of an old TV show.
In any case, the management of the newspaper I worked for announced that it would issue all of its reporters pagers, so that we could be in constant contact with our editors and sources, or rather, so they could be in constant contact with us.
I didn’t much want one. I subscribed to the theory that it was nothing but an electronic leash. It didn’t matter; no one was asking my opinion, and by the time I left that job I was carrying a cell phone in my bag every day as a matter of course. I didn’t use it much, because rates were so high and it was so easy to run out of minutes. I think I charged it once a week or so.
Fast forward about 20 years. The family is going on vacation, spending a few days in a cabin in a state park in the middle of nowhere, Ohio.
The family van will have five people, one dog, two laptops, two Kindles, a GPS system and four smartphones. Plus the assorted power cords and chargers to keep all that equipment going. Good thing that cabin in the state park has WiFi.
I can justify most of the electronica: I need my laptop, aka the family computer, because I have a writing project I need to finish; Caroline just got her laptop and is getting used to it before school starts — she needed it because if she had to share mine, I’d never get any work done; both laptops can also double as DVD players, in case anyone wants to watch a movie; the Kindles both replace bags full of books, which would take up car space better spent on the dog’s kennel.
As for the smartphones, well, we never leave home without them. Teresa likes to play games and delete photos on mine. I guess the GPS system could offer an alternate route if the ones offered by our smartphones don’t work out so well.
The devices have gone from being electronic leashes to electronic security blankets. They provide distraction at all times, so no one ever has to be bored. There’s always Angry Birds. Or Temple Run. Or seeing what all your friends are doing on Facebook.
Although I am painfully and anxiously aware of how much grief young people can cause one another with electronic communication, that hasn’t really become an issue for us. The things my kids and I are doing with our devices are benign in and of themselves.
But with another screen always available to look at, how much time do they spend looking at the glassy surface of a lake, or at the soaring of a hawk over the trees? With another song to listen to, where is the quiet to hear the small, still voice of God?
Martin is assistant editor of the Catholic New World. Contact her at email@example.com.