Monday, May 15, 2006

Gadgets and Conversation [CCR]

With my deep interest in computers and programming I have taken a special interest in gadgets, but sometimes I feel overwhelmed. The other night I was sitting on the couch with my laptop programming an automated packaging machine at one of my employer’s facilities. My wife was playing an online video game with people from all around the world. And my daughter was in her room watch a British television game show on her computer. She knew the answer to their trivia question and we discussed whether to call in and if they would send the money to the United States. We have an Internet telephone service that includes free calling to many countries. It just simply amazes me that all of this data is passing through one little box connecting me to the outside world. I often sit down and think where this world was 100 years ago and how many radio signals we propagate through the air that once lay silent. The world is certainly smaller.

Many reading this article well remember the crank telephones, the last of which left service in the United States in 1983. Those who didn’t experience the crank telephone probably experienced the party line. Our younger folks just don’t know what they were missing. If you needed to make a call you gently picked up the phone receiver to see if you were lucky enough to get a dial tone or if you happened to interrupt someone’s conversation. You then had to wait some random time and check the line again. It would simply drive my children nuts. I often have my own round of wrestling entertainment when they each want to make a call.

Most of us Alabamians enjoyed the simpler times when we often discussed life while sitting on the front porch rocker or swing. When the sun was sitting low we enjoyed the approaching cool air that would soon overcome the heat collected in the house. But until the house cooled we watched as the lightning bugs began their twinkling show and the evening serenade of the insect kingdom began. Unfortunately their serenade also included visits to our porch. But Grandmother would prepare a gnat smoke that kept the bugs clear. If you don’t know about a gnat smoke then you probably haven’t learned that the idea for those fancy citronella candles didn’t come from nowhere. Grandmother would take a large can or bucket and fill it with old rags. She then set the rags on fire, let it burn a short while, and then smothered the fire to a steady smoke. You then positioned yourself on the long front porch to miss the direct line of smoke while it built a fairly decent screen between you and the bug kingdom.

Now protected from the bugs we could talk about the events of the day or plan tomorrow. Maybe a neighbor would stop by and share a few moments and a few stories to help take you into the evening. For many of us a good Southern story outweighs a 40 inch color television any time. It was a Southern way of life that seemed to get lost in our cocoon of air conditioning and digital entertainment. As the night wore on the smoke and the visitors would soon disseminate. Grandmother would pour some water on the old can for safety and our evening was done.

I think the party line was the next best thing to transition from this front porch tradition. Many older folks found it more entertaining to share their neighborly stories from the comfort of the air conditioner. It was a free advance on the miracle of three way calling since most of your neighbors were on the same line. You could tell the story once and hit all eight people if your timing was right.

Yes, we have advanced. We each want our private line and expect nothing less. We then add the three way calling and maybe even dial into some fancy conference calling network. And in moments we are talking around the world with little consciousness to what lies between. The digital bleeps and blips pass as our new neighbors become someone in Spain, England, or Italy. But do you know the person in the next house down the road? Maybe we should have a day of no instant messaging, no telephone, no digital million channel television or compact disc player. Want to know your neighbor? Find an old bucket and some rags. Start a gnat smoke and invite the neighbors over for a chat and some iced tea. If they don’t call the sheriff you might find yourself enjoying the company of a new friend.