Over the Thanksgiving weekend, Xfinity launched an ad that claims to be a sequel to the movie E.T. I suppose the commercial is a sequel of sorts, if you consider that it replicates all of the high points of the movie, with similar cute kids, and an adult Elliott. I found it to be a sad marketing ploy, and I’m not even (and never have been) an E.T. fan.
But the ad got me thinking about the differences between 1982 and now, mostly in my own life. But also because of something else.
That phrase, in 1982, meant call home. Call your parents, wife, boyfriend, the place you lived, because the phone lived where your bedroom was, where you paid the rent or the mortgage, where you actually dwelt. When you phoned home, you literally called a place. And if no humans were in that place, no one answered the phone.
(Except at my parents’ house when I was growing up. Our dog Peppy knew that ringing phones could be stopped if the receiver was pulled from its cradle, so Peppy would do that if no one else was home—to everyone’s annoyance.)
Now, your phone has a home (button/screen) and the phone travels with a person. I don’t know anyone with a landline anymore. I saw a character pick up a landline to call another character on a TV show recently and wondered how the character knew what number to call.
Phone tech has changed, yes, and sf writers of the past imagined that, yes, but they never thought that the phone part of the phone would be the least important aspect.
Recently, the building I live in changed its exterior locking system to a digital one. I can unlock the front door to the building from Paris if I want to, because the building’s locks can be opened through the cloud. Using an app. On my phone.
While we endured the changeover from an actual fob that you swiped against a pad to a locking system that requires the presence of a phone or a high-end watch, the building’s residents joked nervously. And worried constantly. And got locked out a lot in the beginning when the app/cloud system didn’t work.
“What happens when the power goes out?” we would ask (probably ad infinitum, at least as far as the building’s staff was concerned). The answer: the building has a back-up generator, and losing connectivity wasn’t a worry . . . unless the internet went down, and Bluetooth ceased, and, to almost everyone who lived on their phones the way we all do, the world ended.
Because the idea of life without a working phone, without Bluetooth and internet access, made everyone uncomfortable.
But it’s not that far-fetched. There was a tidbit in Mario Alejandro Ariza’s excellent essay, “Come Heat or High Water,” in the Best American Essays 2019, which alarmed me a bit more than I could say. The essay itself is alarming, because it’s about the current effects of climate change on Miami (or rather the 2018 effects, since the essay is a year old).
When Hurricane Irma hit South Florida in 2017, one side effect that didn’t hit the press was devastation to the working poor. A lot of these folks didn’t have the money to make a survival kit. And they relied on SNAP, the food stamp program, to augment their meals, especially between paychecks.
SNAP recipients get an electronic card so they can access their monthly food allotment funds. Only . . . the power went out everywhere during Irma, and the electronic cards didn’t work. Because there was no electricity in grocery stores, no way to get the funds out of an ATM (if it were even allowed), and no way to use that money to buy groceries—if there were groceries to buy.
The local government didn’t comprehend the problem—why didn’t these people stock up like everyone else?—and refused to help, so charities stepped in. By that time, a lot of the working poor had gone days without a meal.
As an sf writer, I’m paid to think about things like this, only I had never imagined it. Sure, I know folks who need SNAP. And I know how important it is to them. I also saw them using their cards at the grocery store.
But I hadn’t thought about what happens in an emergency. Just like the people who designed that app which allows us to get into our building never accounted for people who didn’t own an up-to-date smartphone.
Living in this building requires a certain level of income, so the designers (and purchasers) of the program assumed everyone else was like them, and owned a current smartphone with a current smart watch.
Turns out that a good third of the building had older smartphones, or in the case of one of my neighbors, a flip phone. One neighbor had no cell phone at all. He probably understood how the character in that TV show used a landline while dialing a number from memory.
It took months for the building to authorize a keycard for folks like my neighbors, who had to rely on their neighbors and the staff to let them into their own building so that they could go home.
I suppose you might call that Phone Home Fail.
Not everyone has the latest greatest thing. Not everyone can afford it, and not everyone who can afford it wants it.
But there is no doubt that carrying a small computer around with us has changed the way we do things. I took a Spanish course for the first time in 40 years last fall, and everyone had a translation program open on their phone, just in case. Translate programs are adequate, as my prof liked to say, but they weren’t a substitute for learning. Or understanding the difference between the words used in Spain as opposed to the words used in Colombia. (He actually blushed one day when a student used a word that meant jacket in Spain, but was rude slang for a sex act in Colombia. The translation program didn’t have the rude slang or a warning about it.)
Restaurants have also stepped up their game, making sure plated food is lovely and appetizing, instead of slapped on a plate. People like to photograph their food. I’m no exception, although I tend to photograph mine to make a point—whether that point is decadence (can you believe I’m eating this?), jealousy (can you believe I’m eating this?), or disgust (can you believe I’m eating this?).
That little pocket computer has also changed conversation. Now, we can’t have those pointless arguments about who starred in that fifty-year-old TV show. Some buzzkill at the table will actually look up the information on the phone, and then we actually know. Which isn’t quite as much fun, truth be told.
Sometimes we just know things, because of what happened in our lives at the time of the event. I know that E.T. came out in June of 1982, along with Poltergeist, because those were my birthday movies that year. Yes, there was such a thing as birthday movies. I went to the movies as a birthday present (no money out of my pocket). Which was good because I only had fifty dollars for food that month and had to make it stretch until my first paycheck in July. I ate a lot of watery vegetable soup, thanks to a nearby farmer’s market that allowed me to spend $10 for produce that lasted the entire week.
In other words, I empathize with those SNAP recipients, and I foresee lots of other problems coming our way, because of people like the ones who run my building, who can’t conceive of a world without electricity or smartphones and who don’t think about what will happen if something goes seriously awry.
The phrase “Phone home” has changed a lot in forty years. I have no idea what that phrase will mean, if anything, forty years from now. Or what the world will look like. Or what we’ll take for granted then.
Even though it’s my job to look that far ahead and guess. Which I do on occasion. Just not right now.