Technology can be a bit sneaky. It can insinuate itself into our lives stealthily and, in the process, to become indispensable. Cellphones are a case in point.
Fifteen years ago, who had cellphones? Who can live without them today? For good or for ill, they have become a part of our reality. Even those who are not yet addicted to the little screen find themselves dependent, at least partially, upon the utility offered by the instruments.
When my wife and I began to travel more, 12 or 14 years ago, I paid an associate here in Lyons $50 a month just to be on call for my tenants. I gave each of my tenants his phone number and instructed them to call him if trouble arose. He would call the plumber or the electrician or, in some cases, would deal with the issue himself.
Today I can leave home for Branson, or for Texas or even for locations outside the U.S., secure in the notion that I can be reached if trouble should rear its ugly head. I can call a plumber or an electrician from anywhere. I can remain in control. I can manage with the help of that little black box.
But there is a downside. This past week we spent a few days in the Ozarks. We were joined by our daughter, who is a banker, and a colleague who had never been to Branson, both from Dallas.
Both are consummate professionals who have achieved a status which allows them to work flexibly, to travel and to be rewarded for performance, not for hours at the desk. But the glue that makes such an arrangement possible is, as no doubt you have surmised, the cellphone.
A virtual chain attaches them to the phone. Text messages and conversations flow throughout the day. Both clients and subordinates are engaged in frequent conversation. It reflects that communication is not longer a place to place enterprise; it is very much person to person. And the downtime which used to be associated with detachment from the workplace no longer exists. The workplace is everywhere.
It is apparent that trade-offs exist. No longer are Carolyn and Norma Jean chained to a desk. But the virtual chain to the cellphone is very real. The good, represented by flexibility and freedom from place is offset by the negative, the inability to never really detach from work.
As a parent, over quite an extended period, I spent many evenings seated in my favorite chair, reading and dozing, waiting for that last teenager to come through the door. I simply couldn’t sleep until all were at home. Foolish, I know. But we sent them out to movies or parties or games, often 30 miles away, and had no contact until they arrived home.
I came to believe the comment I had read: the most wonderful sound to a parent is the “sound of tires hitting the gravel as they turned into the driveway.”
Today I watch my children stay in contact with my grandchildren casually throughout the evening. They will say, “the game just ended. They’ll be leaving in about a half hour. Will be home about 11:30.” Text messaging occurs throughout the evening. This kind of communication seems routine. If the grandkids resent this relationship, it isn’t apparent. To those brought up with cellphones, it seems perfectly natural. It’s like the constant contact they maintain with their friends. No one is ever alone.
But perhaps that too has a downside. Maybe sometimes being alone is good. Maybe that constant contact with parents and friends and teachers can be negative. Maybe growing up is enhanced by a little thinking time.
It really makes no difference what we think, however. The cellphone is here and is an integral part of our lives. It has tremendous upside and certainly enhances our ability to live productive lives and to become freer and less regimented. But perhaps understanding the negatives is also important. It is obvious trade-offs do exist. To enjoy the good, we must accept a bit of the bad.
And that, in itself, is a useful life lesson. Endless positives in life are never available. A few negatives are usually out there somewhere. And learning to recognize, to accept and to manage is useful for all of us.
Jack Wempe grew up in the Hutchinson area and is a former educator, state legislator and member of the Kansas Board of Regents now living in Lyons. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.