Life or Something Like It: Lost without a cell phone

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By Suzanne Darland

Just last month, it became apparent to me just how much phone technology has changed our lives.

My young adult Sunday school class had a hot dog roast at a church member’s farm, taking advantage of one more glorious fall day where the pale blue sky provided a backdrop to the orange and yellow hues of the maples and oaks.

All the carloads of attendees arrived but one, and it became apparent they had gotten lost.

Not a problem. Their friends reached for their cellphones and called the couple who weren’t there. But no one answered either phone.

How would we help them find us if they had no phones?

For these 20-somethings, their teen years were during the advent of the mobile phone, where Americans made the great shift away from being tied to a land line to communicate with others. They got their first cellphones in high school or perhaps in middle school if they were lucky. They take for granted the ability to be constantly in touch with their friends instead needing to go home to call them.

What has this shift has meant to us? For one, if we’re going to be late to meet someone, we call or text to let him or her know. Some think this ability, though, has made being late a guilt-free habit and now more common. We don’t have to necessarily be on time.

Nowadays, parents know where their children are at all times, checking in with them during the day. Although I remember a youth function at our house where one teen had to call her mother from our land line when she arrived so our number would show up in the caller id. Her mother wisely asked for location confirmation in pre-GPS days, not trusting her daughter was where she said she was when she used a cell phone to call home.

We keep pictures and videos of our children on our phones, the cute ones we snapped last night, instead of showing friends the school or studio portraits in our wallets. I have lots of friends who don’t make prints anymore. Why would they when they can whip out hundreds of photos at a touch?

Long distance is an outmoded term. When my husband and I were dating, he in Louisville and I in West Palm Beach, Fla., we waited until 11 p.m. each night, when long distance rates went down, to call each other. Now, couples call each other frequently throughout the day with “friends and family” cell packages.

Very few remember rotary phones their parents had, even though we still use the verb “dial” to describe the function of pressing the numbers on a key pad or flat screen. And we make the motion of a receiver, thumb and pinkie stretched wide and other fingers folded towards the palm, and mouth “call me” when we ask someone to call us with his or her flat, rectangular iPhone.

A Pew study in March said 71 percent of 25- to 34-year-olds have phones with Internet access, the most-connected age group. And that makes their phones even more life-changing. They peruse Facebook and post status updates. They pin craft ideas on Pinterest. They find out what time the movie starts and the name of a song that’s blaring from a nearby speaker. An amazing app for someone my age who can’t quite name that tune. They look up recipes and watch movies and YouTube videos.

Finally, someone got a phone call from the missing couple. She left her phone at home that morning; he left his in the sound booth at church. After driving around a while, they had gone back to town and found a pay phone at a gas station. A pay phone! I don’t know when I last saw one, let alone used it. And after Andy put two quarters in, a voice asked for 50 cents more to make the local phone call. One of them remembered a phone number of someone in the class. Quite a feat because we don’t have to memorize phone numbers anymore; we have hundreds in our contact list.

They got directions and showed up a few minutes later. Such pioneers. No contact with the outside world, cut off from civilization and adrift. We all silently vowed to never leave our cellphones behind when we left the house. What would we do without them?

Suzanne Darland teaches journalism classes and is director of the faculty advising center at Elizabethtown Community and Technical College.