Phone Etiquette for the 21st Century

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Those like myself, who grew up when dinosaurs roamed the Earth, remember an entirely different phone system than we have now. Most had a phone in those days (talking about the 50s and onward) but they were all landlines run in from unsightly poles. Furthermore, in many cases, we had to share this line with one or more other people. Now this is not like having multiple phones on the same plan sharing minutes. This is a matter of essentially sharing the phone line itself. In other words, only one person could use it at a time.

Back then, phone manners comprised not only the usual salutation and farewell, but dealing with other people outside your family, usually, but not always, your neighbors. Some were on the phone all the time, others might listen in to your conversations, and other annoyances like that, which are incomprehensible to those who are used to having their own cell phone, possibly from adolescence onward.

Protocol back then dictated if someone on your party line picked up their phone twice, the polite thing to do was hang-up and give the other person a chance to use it. Of course, some people would do this within a minute, which put the rudeness on them. If there was a family on your party line who had one or more teenagers, you can imagine how this worked, though admittedly there are plenty of adults out there who talk as much or more.

There was also the matter of long-distance calls. They were expensive. If you had out of state friends or relatives, or even out of your local area, it could cost you an arm and a leg to conduct long-winded conversations. Writing letters was the norm, since there was no email, either. Special calls for birthdays, holidays and family emergencies were often the only long-distance calls made. That was the Golden Age of Hallmark, when you’d send a card in the mail.

Now we have entirely different issues. Not only are party lines long gone (thank heavens), but now your phone goes with you everywhere. And this creates a whole new set of issues, especially for those of us who aren’t addicted to them.

If everyone in the room has their nose in their phone, then that’s one thing. In fact, texting someone in the same house or even room is not unheard of. This, needless to say, is rather crazy to those of us who are as old as dirt. I suppose it can be related to passing secret notes in class or under the table. But how much of real life do you miss?

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not against texting. It comes in tremendously handy to exchange brief information in an unobtrusive manner. However, like email, it often replaces true communication, either by talking to someone face-to-face or via a voice call. Emoticons notwithstanding, it’s difficult to tell a person’s tone in a text. It is often easier to say something that way than you would ever say in person. This, of course, can lead to ugly confrontations as all restraint and manners depart. Many years ago, back in the 90s, when I worked at NASA, one of our bosses had an informal rule that after three emails on a subject were exchanged it was time to pick up the phone and talk it out. Or, if numerous people were involved, get together and have a meeting. Not a bad bit of advice today.

I guess what irritates me most and what motivated me to rant are the people who can’t live without their phone. They are constantly either talking, texting, or looking something up. Their attention is on their phone, not you or anyone else who’s there. This is bad enough in a group, but one on one it’s incredibly rude. If you met someone for lunch you haven’t seen in years, why would you spend that precious time checking your phone for text messages? If you’re waiting for life or death information, that’s one thing, but you know what I’m saying. Or someone comes over to visit and then spends the time paying more attention to their phone. How does that make you feel? Clearly that the phone is far more important.

Am I entirely insane and old-fashioned thinking this is the epitome of rudeness?

4574511_sModern communications devices have changed our lives, in many instances in a very positive way. But phone addiction has caused problems as well. It took a ridiculous amount of time before it became apparent to insurance companies and law enforcement agencies that those who talked or texted while driving were as dangerous or perhaps even more so than drunk drivers. I suppose a Blue Tooth and voice commands make it no worse than having a passenger or kids in the car, but it’s still a distraction. Whenever I see someone driving erratically they are usually yakking away to someone who’s either invisible or on their headset.

Doesn’t anyone ever concentrate on driving safely anymore? I suppose with self-driving cars coming soon, that won’t matter anymore, but for now it does. Especially in metropolitan areas, most of which have a severe traffic problem.

This rant has gone on far longer than intended when I could have said it in one sentence: When you’re driving or visiting with someone, put away your damn phone. It’s annoying, offensive, rude and sometimes dangerous. And I don’t mean only in traffic. One of these days, the person you’re ignoring might finally get fed up and hit you upside the head.

‘Nuff said.

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The Nebulous Boundary Between Science Fiction and Science Fact

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One of the biggest challenges for science fiction authors is keeping up with the technology. For those of you who have read my books, specifically the 2nd one in the series (“A Dark of Endless Days”) and beyond, you’ll remember Laren’s c-com, short for cerebral companion. This clever little device, essentially a smart phone on steroids, linked directly to his brain via psi link so he could access virtually any information in the Universe and likewise download his own thoughts. It could do just about anything, but there was one caveat, i.e., he had to ask it to do what he wanted. It wouldn’t volunteer information, as he discovered in “Refractions of Frozen Time.” And that’s enough of that before I get into spoiler territory.

As “high tech” as the c-com is, it’s nonetheless a little too easy to imagine such a device in the real world. I just saw an article in R&D Magazine (http://www.rdmag.com/news/2015/04/phone-ultimate-macro-feature) that reported there is now a device that can turn any smart phone into a “DNA-scanning fluorescent microscope.”

Seriously?

Holy cow, I want one!

Not!

No, that’s not exactly on my Amazon wish list, but I’m sure for geneticists and CSI types it would be.

Clearly science and engineering is well on its way toward developing a c-com, taking it from science fiction to science fact. When I first started writing sci-fi my fictitious world had the internet, the equivalent of Craig’s List as well as a currency comparable to Bitcoin, all before their time. It’s been said that whatever man can perceive he can achieve and there’s no doubt that science fiction has been the inspiration for several of the technological marvels you see today. Undoubtedly you’ve seen that picture circulating on Facebook of an old Radio Shack advertisement from twenty or so years back hawking the electronics of the time. It included a television, radio, cameras (both still and video), tape recorder, stereo, a desktop computer, and of course, telephones, with the caption that everything on that entire page had been replaced by the smart phone.

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Charles Holland Duell (shown above), Commissioner of the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office from 1898 to 1901, supposedly once said, “Everything that can be invented has been invented.” This has been debunked but what he did say was, “In my opinion, all previous advances in the various lines of invention will appear totally insignificant when compared with those which the present century will witness. I almost wish that I might live my life over again to see the wonders which are at the threshold.” (Thank you, Wikipedia.)

That was in 1902. He died in 1920. What do you think he would say about what’s out there today?

Case in point, my mother was born in 1906, the time when the Wright brothers were developing their flying machine into the first fixed-wing aircraft. She lived long enough to not only see men walk on the Moon but her daughter (yours truly) eventually work for NASA. She marveled at the internet and I shudder to think what her final years in a rest home would have been like without cable television. And that was just the 20th century. What can we expect in the 21st? What will top 3D printers?

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You’ve probably heard of Moore’s Law which hypothesizes that technology doubles every two years. This statement originated back in 1965 with Gordon E. Moore, co-founder of Intel and Fairchild Semiconductor, whose original statement related to the complexity of integrated circuits but has applied remarkably well to technology in general which, of course, is largely driven by just that. The miniaturization of devices fits in there as well. This “law” has proven to be accurate enough that tech companies have used it for planning purposes.

Science fiction writers, including myself, would do well to bear that in mind. Technology doubles every two years! It can easily take longer than that to write a book! That’s an exponential rate that’s hard to grasp. We’re all quite aware of the present but have often forgotten much of the past. Can you remember what it was like before cell phones or the internet? How about computers? Were you even born yet???

Trying to imagine what will come next taxes your imagination, yet as sci-fi writers that’s our job, to not only keep up but surpass it! That, my friend, is easier said than done. And I certainly don’t mean to throw stones at my fellow writers, but when I read science fiction I thoroughly enjoy noting how different authors extrapolate technology to the future, especially the near-future, such as another fifty years. Gasoline fueled cars? Paper? Really? Ya think? When technology doubles every two years? I particularly enjoy reading about paper documents on planets equipped with interstellar vehicles. Uh huh. Right. I’m as guilty as anyone, hard as I may try. In my novels I had security devices I called “palm locks” to gain entry to a room. Science fiction is now science fact.

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But there’s one area that science fiction writers can always pursue and that’s where technology will take us. Will it eventually all come crashing down? Then what? Are we really better off with our smart phones than we were without them? Or on a path to humanity’s demise? After all, there are those who use smart phones to trigger bombs and incendiary devices. Furthermore, a massive solar flare could destroy the power grid and all those cell towers. Then what? What if our addiction to electronics was forced into cold-turkey withdrawal?

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No wonder dystopian stories are so popular these days. Such scenarios are easier to imagine. Which is scary as hell.

[Illustrations credit 123RF Stock Photos]