I was pal-chatting recently, postulating on one of our favorite topics: Are We Getting Dumber? My dear friend and I were reminiscing about flip phones, the precursor to smart phones. They were delightful little inventions. I still have one on display in one of my office bookcases. It’s about 2 by 4 inches. It folds closed, flips open, hence the name. You could be driving (back when it wasn’t against the law) and feel-punch in a number. My pal and I laughed because back then, between the two of us, we had safely kept probably more than a thousand numbers — not in any miniature chip or storage cloud — but in our heads.
The No. 5 flip-phone button had a little notch on it. People were adept at finding that small braille bump. From there, we blind-punched in numbers to call friends, family and business contacts anywhere in the country.
“Can you remember anyone’s number right now?” I asked.
My friend laughed and shook his head. “No. I don’t think so.” Both our faces wrinkled up. You could see the minds frantically working, tapping imaginary cellphone keypads.
Maybe a couple.
I still remember my high school girlfriend’s telephone number, and those of Lee Smelser (COC basketball), Fran Wrage (pal, coach and neighbor) and, of course, The Signal.
It’s 259-1234. They’ll connect you to circulation for subscription information or to Editor Tim Whyte, who’s always happy to read you the entire paper in case you didn’t get yours that morning.
Way before my time, you’d have to be a special kind of dumb to forget Newhall Lumber’s telephone. It was “1.”
Yes — “1.”
From my high school years to the 1980s, I had memorized hundreds of telephone numbers. As a kid, life was simpler. One of the charming aspects of growing up when I did was the custom of finding a piece of paper and pen to write down someone’s number. It was the equivalent of finding the Holy Grail if a beautiful girl gave you her home phone. (Remember: no cells; no “text me,” no “Here’s my TikTok coordinates.”) Once, a pouty beauty scribbled her home phone on a friend’s forehead.
Turned out to be Chiquita Landfill.
Very cold. Obviously, very premeditated.
I’m still old-fashioned and carry around a leather note pad and write down things like email addresses and cellphone numbers. Younger souls sigh impatiently. They just input my coordinates directly into their cell. Takes them less than a second. I’ve got Kong-sized digits that simultaneously touch all 12 keys. They roll their eyes and inwardly sigh, as if somehow my very being has robbed them of their alleged coolness.
I have nearly 2 million separate files, documents and images on my big rock ‘n’ roll iMac computer. Two. Frigging. Million. I wrote my first novel on a manual typewriter and longhand on scratch pads. How’d I do that? How did the great writers and pre-Garage Band conductors compose art using a quill pen and individual sheets, each the thickness of cardboard?
I’m in the final stretch of launching my publishing company, John Boston Books. I’ve had to learn no less than 14 new software and publishing programs, each promising to be easy-peasy.
And once up and running, Photoshop doesn’t speak nicely to Amazon and Amazon refuses to recognize Quark’s existence. Vellum has fainting spells and Word is psychologically complicated, with all sorts of hidden dramas and passive aggressions bubbling beneath the surface that end up destroying more relationships than Katie Hill (D). I visit YouTube for helpful tutorials, which offer simple solutions that take me on safaris for places that do not exist. I am on helplines sometimes six hours a day with my many new friends in India who work from their homes for like a rupee and a banana to solve my decadent American techno woes. They’re almost always lovely people, occasionally apologizing for the small interruption. In the background, I can hear people screaming there’s a tiger loose in the village. I know there’s a tiger loose in the village because everyone living in India now works for a large American company helpline and speaks English.
When I was a kid, I had four slips of wrinkled, grimy, smudged paper carrying identical numbers. Two had my matching junior high locker combo numbers. Two had my matching high school gym locker combo numbers. Somehow, despite my family evolving from the apes in 1913, I managed to develop enough IQ to remember those two lock combinations and that was the full extent of my technical capabilities.
Today? I have 2 million, count them — two, damn, million — things in my computer. Photos. Graphics. Notes. Forgotten and irreplaceable historical tidbits. Tens of thousands of my columns and stories. Hundreds of thousands of notes. Receipts. Novels. Books. A video of me fighting a boxing nun hand puppet. I remember a few years back stumbling on an article in my files about local SCV history. It was in-depth. Scholarly. Well-written. Had a nice Mark Twain touch of light humor. Halfway through, I remember thinking how on Earth could I, mighty SClarita historian, not have stumbled upon these Dead Sea Scrolls of local history? At the end of the magazine article, I recognized the author’s byline.
It was me.
How did all that junk — happen?
How did all those millions — maybe billions if you break the documents into sentences, words, letters, punctuation marks — get somehow crammed into one 27-inch computer?
With quadruple redundancy backup, of course.
And after all this non-stop memorizing of which shift-key/Hold Your Sphincter While You Simultaneously Press 16 Keys And The Cat’s Operation to reboot your computer — am I smarter? Wiser? Sure. A little. But that comes from no longer leaving my hand on a hot stove or chasing the wrong future alimony beneficiary.
Like there’s a right one.
Isn’t that something? Milling about next to me is an entire generation that knows nothing of simpler, quieter times, free of texting, scanning, social media and passwords.
John Boston is a local Luddite. And writer.