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Serving Northern St. Louis County, Minnesota

When a phone isn’t a phone anymore

David Colburn
Posted 8/18/21

316-382-3381.That was the very first phone number I ever memorized, the home phone number for the Colburn family, beginning in the mid-1960s when we only had to twirl the dial using the last five …

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When a phone isn’t a phone anymore

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316-382-3381.
That was the very first phone number I ever memorized, the home phone number for the Colburn family, beginning in the mid-1960s when we only had to twirl the dial using the last five digits to connect with anyone else in town.
These days, I don’t memorize any, other than my own. All the important ones, and many unimportant, are saved on my smartphone.
We had two phones when I was a kid, a wall-mounted one in the kitchen and a tabletop version in Mom and Dad’s bedroom. My sisters and I didn’t use the phone all that much, at least until high school when my sister Lynn got her very own extension installed in her room. Up through junior high we were out playing with our friends in the neighborhood most days after school, and evenings were for family time and homework.
I’ll admit I warmed up to the telephone a bit more the summer after my freshman year in high school, thanks to church camp. Well, to be more exact, thanks to Rene, the girl I fell in love with that week at church camp who lived 70 miles away. Letters were the primary way we kept our romantic fling alive into the fall, but there were also the occasional phone calls. I’d use the phone in my parents’ bedroom, closing the door for privacy and flopping down comfortably for long chats about everything and nothing, with smatterings of breathless silence and long excruciating goodbyes. Those calls were pure heaven on earth, at least until my parents started making me pay for the long-distance bills. Love, indeed, came at a cost.
All the way through college, a phone was largely just an accessory in my life. Entering the world of work, phones became more essential, particularly with the advent of pagers and modems. Pagers, I hated. Modems, I loved.
When cell phones came around, I thought they were far worse than pagers, far too invasive of my space. I stubbornly stuck with my pager, but resistance to cell phones was futile, and I finally gave in. I kept a landline phone when I got my first flip phone but went completely wireless when I graduated to a fancy new Blackberry. I’ve been hooked on upgrades ever since, although the Galaxy Note 9 I bought two years ago seems quite adequate for several more years.
Now the appliance I once thought I could easily do without is quite hard to ignore, not so much for the voice communications as for its enormous computing power.
I’m still not much of a phone talker. Even on the cheapest, most limited plan available, I rarely use more than a fifth of my talk minutes in a given month.
Not so when it comes to data. I frequently access my email through my phone. I browse the web on it. I have eight different news apps I read regularly and five social media apps that I use to varying degrees that also regularly bombard me with notifications, as does my weather app. I recently added an app that shows me who owns what parcels of land in the county and tracks my route as I drive, although I regularly use the Google Maps app if I just want to get from one place to another. I do banking and auto insurance and business transactions on the phone. I record interviews and meetings with it and upload the files to a transcription service. I access my trove of Amazon Kindle books and digital music files with it. I have three high school sports apps, an app for my Instant Pot, and four apps related to photography, including one that connects to my camera to access basic controls and transfer files. I’ve likely deleted just as many apps, and will undoubtedly add more.
It is at once both magnificent and horrifying, enabling and debilitating, enlightening and maddening. All of that information and functionality right there at my fingertips, wondrous. All of the ways it demands my attention, steals my time, and shapes my moods, lamentable.
And that smartphone does things I’m not even aware of. Until I figured out how turn it off, my phone, and therefore Google, was tracking everywhere I went. I’ll admit that when I first discovered the feature, I had fun retracing my overseas trip in 2019. But then it started to feel kind of creepy knowing that a computer was tracking my movements. Creepy enough that I shut it down. And since I didn’t know it was happening to begin with, I surely don’t miss it one bit.
And now those distant computers can do more than track you. They can, and do, look inside your phones as well.
This past week, Apple got even more invasive with its phones, albeit for a worthy cause, combating child sex abuse. Apple’s computers will now screen iPhones for outgoing messages to children that might contain inappropriate images, and also compare photos on an iPhone against a database of known child sexual abuse material. Apple is alerted if such material is found, the phone is locked, and law enforcement is contacted. At the coding level, the safeguards in the system to prevent misidentification and false accusations are dizzying, to say the least. Apple calculates the chance of false accusations at about one in a trillion.
These new features have sparked a firestorm among privacy advocates, not because of the focus on child sexual abuse, but for how the new snooping technology could be used for other invasions of privacy, such as searching for political images. If there’s anything we’ve learned in the digital age, it’s that technology intended for good can readily be used for nefarious purposes as well. Apple is adamant its technology won’t be used for anything else, but who’s to say someone else won’t develop similar software or find a way around the safeguards?
Once upon a time, we controlled our phones. Today, an average user spends over three hours a day engaging with their smartphone. They interrupt other activities by picking up that phone an average of 58 times a day. I’ve picked mine up five times while writing this column. It appears that phones are quite on the verge of controlling us, if they don’t already.
Technology changes, but I’m wondering more and more if change equals progress. And right now, I think I’d like to have a nice, long landline call with Rene to mull that through together. Simpler times.

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