Samuel Morse quoted Scripture (Number 23:23) in connection with a pivotal breakthrough in communications technology. “What hath God wrought?” was his rhetorical query.
But sometimes we find ourselves wondering whether our brave new communications capabilities have a devilish side.
Phone service can seem fiendish when incoming calls interrupt work, play or sleep.
Technology to the rescue! We can have our calls screened, recorded, caller identified. We can answer if it seems important that we do so right now. We can let the answering device or service catch the call and deal with it at our convenience.
We can have the convenience of a cell phone, so that we can call from wherever (at least where there is cell service or signal) in case we need to make an urgent call while away from our home or place of business.
But once we have given out the cell number, or called quite a few people using our wonderfully convenient cell phone, chances are those people with our cell number start calling us on our cell phones. Then they are calling us at their convenience but at our convenience or inconvenience—and which that is seems to be our problem.
Well, yes, we could just turn the phone off except when we are using it for our own convenience. But apparently most people don’t!
It has been strange but true, as long as I can remember, that we feel compelled to respond to the summons of a ringing telephone. We would be more likely to ignore a knock at the door than to refrain from answering a phone.
With the advent of cordless portable phones, and then infinitely more freely portable phone service, we have become so accessible, we now see ourselves as phonable anywhere, anytime. Or at least a large segment of the population does. I see this as potential enslavement. My cell phone number is given out on a very picky need-to-know basis. If you need to be able to reach me at once, whether or not I am in the office where I expect to be reached, chances are I have given you my cell phone number. But you also know that I don’t have my cell turned on, most of the time, and I carry it only when I think I will need it.
Phone service has become so intrusive and phone use so nearly constant, the potential for misusing phone communications has expanded exponentially.
So has the persistence of formerly fleeting communication. Not just the peskiness of people who will call over and over and over, but the kind of memory-lingers-on of that comes of storage. These devices can store voice messages and text messages and photos, and can even “broadcast” them to others.
Now we are finding that there were some unanticipated trade-offs when we as a society embraced the brave new telephony along with immersion in social networking.
Ever-present phones have many of us jabbering away with one another about almost everything, often too immediately for forethought, and too impulsively to consider the probable outcomes.
Things we would think twice about before saying to someone’s face, we blurt out on Facebook.
Things we would be unlikely to commit to writing, we text or e-mail or tweet.
Many of us are doing this without stopping to think that our words are being captured and can be retained. That computer, that portable device at the other end can preserve our words.
We might think of phone calls, spoken words and quickly exchanged or spontaneous messages as being so fleeting as to vanish as soon as the next message comes flying in. But that isn’t the way it works.
E-mails live on, and on and on. They can be subpoenaed. They can be stored a long time, and traced and verified as having come from us, or at least our system.
Text messages and instant messages and blogs and chats and message board posts can be retained, and thrown back at us, and come back to haunt us in various situations later on. Political candidates and errant spouses are among those who have learned this to their pain.
Among the complaints that crop up locally, and command police attention, are those of upset parents whose children have been communicated with inappropriately, and of the kids themselves who are angered or frightened by text messages. It isn’t a matter of “That’s what I recall him saying” now; but one of “See, right there is what he wrote” or “Here’s the voice message.”
In some schools these modes of communication are being factored into the anti-bullying policies and programs. The upsetment triggered by misused communications out of school hours creates tensions that charge the atmosphere at school.
How can these unintended consequences of perpetual communication be ameliorated? I am not sure. But I believe we need to think about it. Parents, schools, communities, law enforcers, all of us need to find ways of helping society use these communication tools constructively and wisely.