Thursday, September 29, 2011

Because I Said So: Low-tech telecom new frontier for digital kids

S reads
The kids get a kick out of seeing their name in print. G's teacher still has a column featuring G hanging in the classroom and G reminds me of that almost daily. When I told S that today's column mentions her, she demanded to read it beforehand. I didn't let her, I have enough editors as it is. Instead, she waited until this morning and read it in the newspaper while she ate her waffle. She seemed pleased. It doesn't seem to matter whether I'm making fun of them or not, they just like knowing they got a mention. And that their names are spelled right.

Being in the same room with S as she tries to learn the nuances of an actual, land line telephone is maddening. I couldn't even describe it all in the limited space - the way she'll answer the phone with silence, waiting for the person on the other end to speak first; or the way she is stopped cold with her deer-in-the-headlights eyes when someone other than the kid she's calling answers the phone. Don't even get me started on her use of the speaker phone.

I couldn't catch it all, but I think I got the gist of it down for today's Commercial Appeal. It's something we all go through, it's something we all went through. So, if you will, please take the phone off the hook and give today's column a read.

For more than a decade, we haven't had a home telephone. Like so many others, we grew tired of telemarketers, wrong numbers and the double billing on top of our cell phones.

But our kids continue to age and become more social. It had become time for either a home phone or pockets full of cell phones when a giant corporation made us a deal promising free HBO, a land line and terrible service.

How could we say no?

The kids have never known a home phone. It was like a prop from one of those classic films they like, one from the 1980s. They approached the thin, silvery wand the way a pet might advance on a new animal in its territory. They walked around it, sniffed it and pushed at it with their filthy paws.

Once we convinced them that it was OK, that it was like any other piece of technology they know, they relaxed. It was lifted gingerly from its cradle to be further scrutinized and then pointed at the television. It was aimed at the Wii and searched over for an Internet portal. In an effort to dial up YouTube, my son may have dialed Japan.

Alexander Graham Bell shouted into the first telephone, "Mr. Watson, come here, I want to see you!" My 9-year-old daughter first shouted into her new telephone, "It's Somerset! Hello? Is this thing even on?"

The receiver was not a room away as he had been in 1876, but blocks away, and I'm certain Somerset's friend heard her as much through the windows and over air as she did through the telephone.

A recent cartoon in The New Yorker shows two children walking, each carrying a backpack as if to school, and one says to the other, "So, hw ws yr smmr?" The caption reads: First Day Back To Verbal Communication.

We've taught our children to say "please" and "thank you," to clear their dirty dishes and to hold the door for those behind them, but phone etiquette is a new frontier. They've grown up in a world of cell phones, texts, instant messaging and the shorthand required to navigate these networks. It has seeped into their speech. The phrase, "May I speak to ..." is as foreign to them as how and why to make an emoticon is to me.

Technology is not lost on kids today. They are able to grasp the intricacies of buttons, touch screens, mice and cursors. It's the concept of technological regression they can't quite fathom. The rotary phones of my childhood would have been out of the question for these children of the 21st century. They would lose interest in whatever it was they or their friends had to say by the fourth digit in the telephone number.

"My voice travels through wires?" they said that day, looking at the cordless phone.

"Eventually, yes," I said, exasperated. "It's like a telegraph machine. Go look it up on Wikipedia. No, you can't get to Wikipedia on that phone."

Richard J. Alley is the father of two boys and two girls. Read more from him at Become a fan of "Because I Said So" on Facebook:
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