WHERE’S MY CELL PHONE?

By Paul

I’ve had several experiences lately which have taught me the power of gadgets.  They’ve all had to do with people whom I know well, very intelligent women in each case, who have recently acquired a brand new I-phone.  I can’t say for sure if any of them had already had an earlier variant of the thing, but according to them all, this new version was – wow!  They were eager to show it to my partner and me, along with all of the tricks, all the nifty, spiffy stuff these miracles of modernism could perform.  It made my head spin a little, I have to admit, to witness their legerdemain, what these contrivances, these paeans of technological prestidigitation were capable of. 

But before I continue, I do have one shameful confession that I feel I have to make.  In doing so, I realize that I ought to be hanging my head a little, although somehow – and no doubt perversely – I cannot find it within myself to do so, but anyway, here goes:  neither my partner, nor I, has a cell phone of any kind, let alone one of the newest and chicest variety!  There, I’ve gotten it off my chest.  Why that is we’ll perhaps get into a bit later.  For the moment, though, I hope it will just suffice to say that we’ve decided against it.       

Now, I understand that this confession may come as something of a shock.  The two of us are, in fact, quite literally (well, alright, except for one other person) the only people among all those whom we know who are bereft of this archetype of twenty-first century communications.  But what will happen, people often say to us, if your car breaks down?  What would happen if you are on the freeway and are possessed of an overpowering desire, an unyielding yen, for a veggie burrito, but know of no credible Mexican restaurant in the area?  How would you look one up?  And what if you were lost, or separated, in a busy terminal, how in God’s name would you ever go about finding each other again?  Isn’t it dangerous, they say?  Isn’t it tempting fate; isn’t it just plain dumb (let’s use the actual word they’re probably thinking), NOT to have a cell phone?

Well, all I can say is that, so far at least, we seem to have gotten along just fine without it.  Oh, well, except for that one time, I guess!  We were in Paris, staying in a cheap hotel, one without a computer in the lobby for public use, and were planning on leaving next morning.  We wanted to arrange for our boarding passes in advance, so in my best French I asked the attendant at the desk where the nearest internet café was located.  He had to ask someone else, who in turn asked another person, but nobody seemed to know.  Such an emporium hardly seems to exist anymore.  After much searching, we did finally find one not far from the Sorbonne, but I think that it may well have been the last internet café operating in all of Paris.

Of course, I’m not saying that having a cell phone would have saved us in this case, although I’ll admit it may have been of some small assistance.  But, other than that, so far we have never really needed one.  More to the point, though, I have to say that there’s something about these tiny devices that, frankly, I find to be more than a little annoying. 

How many times have you seen people with their noses in their cell phones, when you might just think, why aren’t they talking with the people they’re with, or why aren’t they looking where they’re walking, or why aren’t they just experiencing the world around them?  It’s especially annoying when you see people looking at the world around them THROUGH their cell phones!  Just as one example among many I could cite, we were at a very interesting art installation recently at the LA County Museum of Art.  It’s called “Metropolis II,” and it consists of a huge kinetic model of a city that has a thousand miniature cars racing along at high speed on what can only be called tiny freeways.  It’s an amazing sight; everyone was mesmerized.  And then there was the group that seemed to only be able to experience it through the lens of their cell phones.  It was as if they were holding up some kind of electronic shield in front of their faces, protecting them from the actual experience of seeing the thing, with the putative objective – I suppose – of maybe being able to show it to somebody later, who would also experience it only “virtually,” just as they had, in fact, done.  I don’t get it.  We saw the same thing a couple of years earlier, too, in the Louvre.  There they were, dozens of people crowded in front of the Mona Lisa (i.e., La Joconde) looking at one of the world’s iconic paintings through a tiny gadget.  Can it be said that they really experienced the painting? It didn’t seem to me as though they had.  Instead, it looked as if they were experiencing their cell phone looking at the painting.

And as you see, I’m not even talking about those people who illegally text or talk on their cell phones while driving.  Dante, I am sure, would have found a special place in one of the lower circles of hell for them.  I’ll give you one example, though, just because it was egregious beyond even what I thought I could have imagined.  There she was, this chic-looking blond woman probably in her early forties, sitting in a giant SUV, talking on a cell phone, which she held to her ear with her left hand, while at the same time applying make up (I am not exaggerating!) to her face with her right hand, all the while “driving,” if it can be called that, ostensibly steering, with her elbows!  I swear to you, I actually witnessed this, and I am not exaggerating just to make a point. 

The answer to my title question, then, about the whereabouts of my cell phone is a simple one:  it’s nowhere to be found, because it doesn’t exist!  I don’t have one.  I’m not looking for it, and I don’t regret its absence, nor am I pinning away for one.  If I had to, I guess I’d probably agree with you if you were to call me a bit of a Luddite, you know, one of those anti-technology people who rail against the latest new gadget, which in reality is such a huge wave as to be utterly unstoppable.  Still, I’m maybe not such a hopeless case.  After all, Kevin and I are publishing a BLOG!  And here I am, sitting at a computer each day and typing this stuff out.  Kevin and I frequently write back and forth to each other, too, on email (email, mind you, not snail mail, so called).  Although the messages we send ought more properly to be called “letters,” you know, in that quaint, now almost embarrassingly old-fashioned nineteenth century style.

But there’s no doubt that gadgets are powerful devices.  They have a fascination and an intoxicating, hypnotic, almost obsessive hold on lots of folks.  I’ve even heard people say those very words: “I am obsessed with my I-phone!” But isn’t that a shame?  Wouldn’t it be better to be obsessed with – oh, I don’t know – maybe literature, or art, or even let’s say exercise?  Or am I wrong?  Do you find me hopelessly obsolete in my thinking?  It may be so.  But I’d rather a thousand times take a walk in an actual forest than in a virtual one.  And if I were ever to meet someone famous, say Pres. Obama, I hope I would reach out and shake his actual hand, and not instead stick a listening device between him and me.  So, for now I’ll stay the way I am, although I should no doubt stop haranguing people about how they choose to be.  After all, I’m just an old liberal, that is, an old-fashioned kind of guy, as much as I am typing this on a computer.  And if in the end you do choose to keep your cell phone, just promise me one thing:  please, promise me that I won’t be driving down the street one fine day, only to look over and see you driving with your elbows!  And that’s really about all I have to say on this topic.  Thanks, though, and have fun (I guess) with your latest app.

THE FUTURE OF WORK, OR HOW DO I GET A JOB WITHOUT A HIGH SCHOOL DIPLOMA?

By Paul

We cannot always build the future for our youth, but we can build our youth for the future.” Franklin Delano Roosevelt

 I’ve been thinking recently about a fascinating show I saw last week on PBS about the Amish.  There are many things about them to admire, including their insistence on living a simple life and their finding spiritual strength in the land, and then there are some things about them that both puzzle and disturb me.  One of the most puzzling things has to do with their take on education, which is that children are only allowed to go to school up to the 8th grade. 

At a real stretch, I guess that could possibly make some measure of sense, however dubious, if little Josiah or Esther are going to inherit the family farm and live like their great grandparents did.  But is that really feasible anymore?  Not only do the Amish tend to have lots of kids, and therefore dad’s farm is getting subdivided into lots of smaller and smaller parcels, but many already have no farm at all.  Instead, they work in local factories owned by “English” (i.e. non-Amish) people. 

This in turn got me thinking about lots of other kids, not just the Amish, who may be looking for factory jobs in the future.  When I was a teenager, back in the 50’s, there were plenty of these kinds of jobs around, and I could easily have gotten one myself after high school, if I’d chosen that route, just as my brother did, in fact.  He went on to make a decent living working at the Ford Company factory near where we grew up in upstate New York.  They produced springs and radiators there.  But even he eventually had to move to Detroit for a while, once the factory he worked in got shut down.  And both my father and my mother, too, worked in factories before him making sandpaper, even if they got a lot less money for it than he did.

The scene that sticks in my mind from the show is the shots of the Amish men running around as fast as they could, pretty much literally, from place to place in the factory, all the while piecing together what looked like small vacation trailers.  What kept going through my mind was one simple question:  how much longer would the owner of that factory even need these guys?  It’s hard for me to imagine that sooner or later robotic devices aren’t going to be cheap enough for the owner of that factory to say to himself, why am I doing this?  Why am I paying Josiah’s wages, and his healthcare (if he even gets that), all the while worrying about whether or not he might get injured, or discouraged, or come to work drunk some day (not that any Amish would do that!).  But why not instead bite the bullet, splurge up front for the robots, and then never have to think twice again about paying wages or benefits, or having to deal with somebody’s messy emotional life?  And I can work these things 24/7, if I’ve got the orders.  One thing is definitely for sure: robots do not complain about overwork, and they don’t demand double or triple time either! 

I don’t think that day may be so far off for this particular vacation trailer maker, or for thousands of other large and small manufacturers throughout the country, and the world, for that matter.  So the real question that this comes back to once again has to do with education.  How are we going to provide Josiah and Esther, and Jack and Jane, and Manuel and Maria, and millions like them with the needed education to get them ready for what’s coming round the bend?  How do we even convince them that something is coming?  Leave aside for the moment the Amish and the question of their life-style choices, and just think about those kids in Los Angeles, let’s say, or Dayton, or Dubuque, who don’t finish, or just barely finish high school.  What kind of a job can they expect to get, and I’m not just talking about next month, but 20 or 30 years from now? 

Sure, there will always be a need for plumbers and carpenters and other skilled craftsmen, but that takes training, too.  And not everyone is interested in college; neither does everybody get to go there, even if they are interested.  But what we’ve got to think through right now is how to help those young people who are about to be displaced by technology.  What are they going to do?  They want and deserve a good life too, but they need the skills that are going to be required for the jobs of the 21st century.  So, yes, let’s definitely support Pres. Obama’s call for more training after high school, and at the same time by the way, why not urge companies to take on young interns who, with a solid enough educational background, can be trained on the job for the way work is going to be done in the future?  The Germans do it already, and we can maybe learn some pretty good lessons from them about how to run an economy. 

My father and my mother, and my brother too, were all part of the old style factory model, but even they knew that the way it had been for them couldn’t last forever.  And if that time hasn’t already come, it’s not far off.  I just hope that Josiah and his friends, as well as others who for whatever reason don’t go to college, will see the handwriting on the wall, and see what it’s going to take to get ahead from this point on.  Every human being deserves a good life, and yet that good life is not guaranteed.  It’s up to us to guide young people and to provide them with opportunities, and then it’s up to them to take advantage of those opportunities.  Without both sides of that equation, farm and factory alike are going to be outside of their reach.