I remember when we were addresses, not numbers. The generation before me remembers when people were people, not addresses. The generation after me is all numbers, although I do participate, I am not truly a part of that group. I remember before we were numbers when the only question that mattered was, “Where do you live?” I remember next the question became, “Where’s the phone?” Followed by, “I paged you several times and you didn’t call me back.” The questions of communication that have allowed us to have less connection to where we live and more anonymity while contradictorily being more exposed by social media than ever before in my lifetime.
When I was growing up, the most crucial part of a conversation was, “Where do you live?” It was a question that was dictated by locational reference what type of person they may be. If I lived two blocks north of my childhood home, I would probably be a member of an African-American family. If I were to go two blocks to the south, I’d probably be an older white woman, more than likely widowed. If I journeyed three blocks to the west, more than likely I’d be a blend of Hispanic or African-American. Four blocks to the east primarily Dutch middle class white families with American flags on the porch.
We knew the boundaries and most of the time accepted them without question for “our own protection.” Most of the time we did follow the rules, but it was a struggle to do so. When we didn’t, it usually wasn’t long before going where we didn’t live was firmly corrected by threats or actively rejected by mild violence.
We followed the codes set down by our histories. We learned how to behave in a society that was not accepting of people outside of the boundary.
Again, it was all about where a person lived. We had communities that were based on a respective leveling field of either economic means, or by employability. There was a carefully balanced ecocosim that existed only because, as children, we didn’t understand how it worked. We mostly went with the flow. It’s what we knew. It was our normal.
In our house, we had a main phone located on the kitchen wall. Because of the cord, we could reach the sink for a drink of water, but if we got hungry, the fridge was just out of reach. We wrote phone numbers in tiny letters on the dining room wallpaper. We hid around the corner in the kitchen and spoke as if we were at a funeral in fears we’d be told to get off the phone. After a family emergency, we finally got a second line, upstairs in my parent’s bedroom. My parents argued for years whether or not to put in a third line in the basement, but that never happened.
When the portable phones first appeared as affordable, we, as a people, felt the freedom to roam the house away from prying ears and eyes. When the phone rang, members in our household would call out for the location of the phone. When one person, like me for example, hogged the phone, we were chastised and grounded from using the portable phones.
As we grew accustomed to being able to roam, we further became accustomed to the caller ID which allowed us to preview the incoming calls and screen out the ones we didn’t want. We were able to sort out the people we wanted in our lives by their phone numbers. Our neighborhoods expanded when we could freely communicate with portability. But those phones never quite reached far enough. You couldn’t be but a short bit away from the base and although it was farther than just the kitchen sink, it wasn’t far enough to go to the end of the road.
When you were out and about and had to make a call, you stopped off at a phone booth, that for a dime, would allow you to call anyone in your local area, and for a bit more allowed you access to a long distance party for as long as you kept feeding the machine. If your call got disconnected, you could sometimes get a refund by calling the operator. That operator was a real person with a real job directing people where they needed to go to get connected. I miss that tremendously.
Now, I can use 411 for number search only. I can’t ask if a double yolk egg messes up a recipe at three in the morning. I can’t speak with a human being. I have to pray the voice recognition software hears me clearly when I ask for business or residence or government entity. I can’t get to know anyone because there isn’t anyone there to get to know. Even information is disconnected from who we are.
Pagers came along and were first used for business contacts to keep informed by phone. If a pager went off, people looked around to see who was so important they had to be reached at any time day or night. If I heard a pager go off and saw a well dressed man or woman get up and leave to find a phone, I thought they had something really good going for them. Then pagers became affordable enough for anyone to have one. The good side was that communication grew with the people who could page me, but got lost because I still had to find a phone from which to contact them. We were still tied to the house phone mentality that kept a person in their respectable place. Boundaries were still strong but weakening.
When I got my first pager, I felt so self important. I believed that it made me appear to be more prestigious. I believed that I was more important than someone else. It created a prejudice for me against those who couldn’t afford 20 bucks a month. I held onto that until they started to get even more popular and everyone had one. My balloon popped and I was back to being average again.
Cell phones, when I was younger, were only for the Wall Street people. They were the only people who could afford the daunting fees of paying for minutes. When I’d see people with cell phones, I’d think, man, they must really have made it. They must be somebody. I aspired to own one so I could go from being “normal” to extraordinary. I bought into the number mentality. I believed I’d be more successful once I had one. In fact, I wasn’t very successful at much, but I wanted to believe I was.
When I got my first cell phone, I called everyone and informed them of my “accomplishment.” I was so proud and self-important that I really believed I was better than everyone else. Until they became affordable enough for everyone to have a cell phone easily, that changed the field again. Then it was a battle to have the best phone with a vanity number, perhaps. The more features, the better the phone. The better the phone with its many features the better of a person held it. Or so I believed.
Then, one day it occurred to me that we were becoming numbers. We no longer had to remember where people lived because we could meet them anywhere they were. It was the perfect way to lose the base of community and for people to universally accept it. “Can I have your number?” Changed into, “Can I get your digits?” People became numbers and didn’t question it any more. We accepted the fact that in order to “be” somebody, you needed to be within the circle. You needed to have a number. I bought that too.
More recently, I’ve discovered, although it’s been a feature for years that your closest people don’t even get to be ten digits. They get shortened, usually by order of importance, to speed dial. On my phone, number one is pre-programmed to my voice mail. I can’t change that. Number two was held by my best friend, three by my husband, four by my son, five by my mother, six by another friend, seven eight and nine are all friends as well. I don’t remember their phone numbers any more, just their speed dial number. I don’t have to think. I don’t have to be actively involved in which number to dial after the first digit. I can stay connected by disconnecting myself from having to be a thinking person.
My son said to me, “If I don’t have my phone with me, I don’t exist.” After I checked my phone for the third time during the course of our conversation, I realized that his statement is accepted as the norm. We no longer exist unless we can check our phones to verify that we are an active member in our selected social circle.
If I forget my phone, I feel lost and disoriented. I’ve become that dependent on having it nearby. My son, on the other hand, knows the language of the Internet youth. He understands the importance of late night texting to build his own group of digits. He gets that some people’s conversations with him are imperative to his happiness, and so asks permission to walk the path he is on with technology while still hanging out with his parents.
Sometimes I balk heavily at his usage of his phone, but today, it’s more important than ever to have a strong identity via which number is assigned to you. The phone was all important until social media took over.
I am a self proclaimed Facebook addict whom checks frequently on the people I care about to see what’s happening in their lives. I’ve watched Cancer take people I love. I’ve watched divorces and breakups. I’ve seen weddings and birthdays, births and anniversaries, and graduations celebrated. Even when I couldn’t be with the people I love, I feel a bit like a stalker/participant. But this bothers me as well because even though I’m watching this occur in video, chat, posts, or pictures, it’s not the same as living in the same house, hanging out with the same people, going to the same places as a group, having an actual community that puts hands in the soil together and grows something spectacular.
It’s not the same to see a picture as it is to be right in the middle of it. It’s not the same to read a book and imagine festival through the perceptions of the writer. Events of life demand participation in such a way that sweat and dressy clothes get over worn by the weather as much as the laughter and camaraderie does the same. It’s not the same to watch a video and catch that tiny snapshot into the bigger picture. It’s not enough to want to see it.
Everything on Facebook, MySpace, yahoo, CNN, FOX, anything .com are compilations of 1’s and 0’s. Nothing that is seen on the web, on videos, in articles posted, or even graphics that offer snippets of political views or causes we find important exist. They are all 1’s and 0’s. It’s not real. It is propaganda designed to make us think we are more important than we really are. We’re digits with names that identify us down to the picture of dinner last night. We’re numbers that matter only when someone finds fault in our illogical thinking or erratic behaviors.
I remember when we were addresses instead of numbers. I remember when it all began because I lived through it. I remember when exposure to other cultures, races, or ideals, went against everything I was taught to believe. I remember when where a person came from meant more than what they did in their bedroom or what they believed publicly. I remember. You should remember as well.