Mr. Hirota went inside.
His voice floated out.
Fumika? It’s your father. I miss you.
from:The Phone Booth in Mr. Hirota’s Garden
written by Heather Smith
Illustrated by Rachel Wada
Orca Book Publishers, 2019
Even before my girls were teenagers, they wanted, no, make that needed a little privacy. We had a rotary phone attached to the wall and to the landline connecting our phone to every other phone. A curly cord accordioned out several feet from the receiver. The cord was so long that the person talking in our house could stretch it to its outer limit and talk privately, sorta, on the basement step behind a partially closed door.
That system worked for a long time. The girls grew up, moved out and got phones of their own. I held fast to that landline, though, even when lots of people were switching to use their mobile phones exclusively, including “the girls.”
What finally changed my mind was picking up messages from my answering machine after we came home from vacation. Seventeen messages rewarded me with robocalls, requests for donations, a couple of wrong numbers, and a few blank messages full of dead air. I had no calls to return. Not even one.
We joined our kids and went landline-free.
At first, I was undependable. I’d forget my phone when I left the house on errands. I’d inadvertently let the battery run down. I’d leave it somewhere and spend many precious minutes looking for it, only to find it on the shelf next to the cat box where I had purposefully set it down to clean the box.
The telephone is a remarkable invention. It changes the sound of our voices into electrical impulses and sends them, now mostly wirelessly, to anywhere in the world. And not only sound, but images. Of ourselves, our grandchildren, and friends when we videochat through FaceTime, Zoom, or one of many other platforms. Like the wheel, moveable type, automobiles, and computers, the telephone changed the world.
The name most associated with the telephone is Alexander Graham Bell. Although he is credited with the invention, his passion was oralism, teaching deaf people to speak using lip-reading and verbal speech, rather than sign language. He studied Visible Speech, a phonetic alphabet devised by his father, Alexander Melville Bell, a British linguist. Melville used symbols to represent the position of the speech organs when articulating sounds. The symbols were cumbersome, though, and after about 10 years they fell into disuse.
Alexander learned the alphabet and used money he earned from his invention of the telephone to promote oralism and the Visual Alphabet in the US.
Telephones were not immediately or overwhelmingly received. When he first viewed the telephone in 1876, President Rutherford B. Hayes was said to have commented to Alexander Graham Bell, “That’s an amazing invention, but who would ever want to use one of them?”
It’s hard to stop progress, though, and in 1887, the first telephone line was constructed, the first switchboard was created, and the first telephone exchange was in operation. Three years later, almost 49,000 telephones were in use. By 1900, there were nearly 600,000 phones in Bell’s telephone system and 5 years later, more than 2.2 million. After he acquired Western Union, Bell’s company, AT&T, had a near monopoly on electronic transmissions.
The 1960s, saw more than 80 million phone hookups in the U.S. and 160 million in the world. That number doubled by 1980.
A decade later, the first digital cellular network went online in Orlando, Florida and by 1993, 25 million people subscribed to cellular phone service.
According to Pew Research, 97% of American adults own some type of cell phone. And while it is true that almost every American adult owns a cell phone, smart or otherwise, less than half of us are solely dependent on them for internet searches. We have laptops, tablets, and reading devices, too.
And according to Common Sense Media, over half of our children own a smartphone by the age of 11.
Small enough and lightweight enough to carry in our pockets, telephones have not only become indispensable, they are sophisticated beyond all measure. Besides allowing us to “ring up” our families and friends, our telephones record important life events, locate mundane answers to mundane questions, provide vital life-saving information, allow us to waste time playing solitaire or any number of other activities, buy gifts, groceries, and garden equipment. We can watch movies, podcasts, and classic TV shows.
We can text any number of ways. We can email, pay our utility bills and credit card bills. We can keep track of our heartrate, calories we’ve eaten, and miles we’ve walked. We can check out a book from our library or buy a book and have it delivered right to our house.
I actually can’t think of anything that can’t be done with a smart phone.
Our landscape is dotted with cellphone towers, providing all that instant access. But smartphones not only facilitate our conversations, and searches, they listen in. They listen for “wake words” also called “hot words” to activate voice commands like “Hey Siri” or “Alexa.”
Here's how to turn off your microphone. You’ll need to scroll down pretty far past the Norton ads. You can still talk into your messages, ask Google to find a website, and transcribe a list in your notes.
Since I just turned off Siri this moment, I’m not sure how much less she will hear. I’ll keep you posted!
-—Be curious! (and stay in touch)