Tag Archives: cell phones

“Before technology was even invented…”

You can feel it coming, can’t you? It’s that observation-based-on-a-hazy-notion-of-history, the time of “yore” so usefully deployed by Phoebe—or was it Rachel?—in an episode of Friends to describe the origin of a putative antique: it was made in Yore.

I’ve written before about that historical time, so shrouded in the mists of the past and of the student mind. Despite the noble efforts of the school system, Americans in general have a rather shaky notion of history; nevertheless, we like to invoke its lessons and examples (accurately or otherwise) to justify all kinds of things. The past lends GRAVITAS. In this assumption, students are just like all the rest of us.

They want to put their ideas into an historical context to make them important, serious, significant. I appreciate that. The problem arises when the historical context is something comically vague, or comically wrong, or downright bizarre—as it was in this student’s paper.

He was writing about electronic communications: specifically, cell-phone calls, emails, and texts. We had talked in class about the changes these resources had made in the way we lived our daily lives, exchanged information or affection with each other, made contact with our fellow creatures. Then I had asked the class to write an essay that answered this question: Through our embrace of modern technology, have we become complicitous in our own isolation, almost agoraphobia?

My student wanted to defend our near-constant use of technological devices for communication, arguing that they enable us to be not isolated but actually more closely connected than ever before. That’s an argument that can be made, of course.

But he undercut his own effectiveness from the very beginning, because he felt he had to establish the contrasting image of those dark ages “before technology was even invented” (as if starting a fire by striking two appropriate rocks together or creating friction with a bow-drill were not technology). And the way he defined that pre-tech time was… well, you decide:

“Before technology was even invented, one would have to send a letter that would be carried by a man on a horse.”

Communication with someone not in the same room depended on three components, you see: a letter, a man, and a horse—the man carrying the letter and the horse carrying the man. Any other means could not succeed. Clearly the illiterate could not communicate at all (drums, smoke, beacon fires, and other non-script communications not counting). Those who could write letters but who were not men with horses, or who had no access to “a” man with a horse (so much for stagecoaches, not to mention ships), or who could not afford to employ said man, were out of luck. Could next-door neighbors simply hand their letters across the fence, or did even they have to find that obliging equestrian? People who lived in places where horses did not exist or, alternatively, existed but were not tamed to the saddle were, obviously, out of luck.

So what “technology” are we talking about here? Maybe the telephone and the telegraph machine, both of which inventions supplemented and then began to supplant letters—and both of which were faster than a man on a horse, or even a man on a bicycle or in a car, once that technology (!) was invented. I certainly hope my student had at least that time in mind, and wasn’t thinking of the invention of the computer or the cell phone as the advent of technology, because if he was thinking of the computer age as the dawn of technology (and many of my students do) then he was imagining this busy man-on-a-horse serving his very grandparents’ social and business needs, and that is a notion of history not merely bizarre but downright terrifying.

In all likelihood, my student wasn’t thinking in specific terms at all when he wrote this sentence. Something called “technology” that was his subject, a vague figure like a Pony Express rider thundering across the plains with mail in his saddlebags or perhaps a royal messenger galloping through Sherwood Forest, scrolled message held aloft in one hand and reins in the other, as a contrast to two thumbs dancing across tiny letter keys to ask “U hungry?” or remark “ROTFL.” And the contrast was, after all, his subject, his point; the rest of the image was mere launch-pad.

He didn’t expect me, his ever-hopeful reader, to spend more time thinking about the sentence than he had. But if he had spent more time, the essay would have begun better.

A Pony Express rider, appropriately enough enshrined on a postage stamp. No technology involved here! This image of the stamp accompanies the description of

A Pony Express rider, appropriately enough enshrined on a postage stamp. No technology involved here! (This image of the stamp accompanies the description of “Pony Express” in the Encyclopaedia Britannica online, http://www.britannica.com/topic/Pony-Express and can of course be found on hundreds of other sites as well.)

“Everywhere you go, you’ll indefinitely see people glued to their phone.”

Another phone essay, another bizarre image.

People glued to their phone. I won’t make much of the plural possessive pronoun that refers (properly) to a plural noun doing the possessing but disconcertingly refers to a single object possessed, giving the impression (okay, giving me, picky reader extraordinaire, the impression) of group ownership and thus of glued groups…. Okay, one flight of fancy: I wonder how many people could be glued to a single phone, especially something as small as an iPhone. How many angels can dance on the head of a pin? (Go here for an illuminating discussion of that celebrated theological debate; here for a relevant cartoon….)

No, I have to look more closely at the adverb in the sentence: “indefinitely.”

My student did NOT mean that “you” would see “in an undefined way,” or “imprecisely see,” or see “without limits” or “vaguely” or “without certainty,” or “through a glass, darkly”: any reader would recognize immediately that she did not mean any of these. Any reader, including the teacher, knows that she meant “definitely”: exactly the opposite of what she wrote. Or at least, putting ourselves in her place, we would look twice at a group of people before pronouncing them glued to anything; we wouldn’t be satisfied with an indefinite impression of that. We would mean “definitely” or not write anything at all.

I would attribute this error to mere carelessness, or perhaps bad cut-and-pasting (deciding to change “instantly” to “definitely,” for instance, but not erasing all of the first choice), except that this student is not the only one in recent years who has written “indefinitely” instead of the intended “definitely.”

What’s going on? Has “indefinitely” joined the ranks of “inflammable,” meaning either definitely or not definitely just as “inflammable” can mean “capable of bursting into flames” or, colloquially and increasingly, “not capable of bursting into flames”? (Webster’s, or at least my edition, has not caught up with this second usage yet, but all around me (everywhere I go) are people who insist that it is correct…) If we’re on a road that leads to the loss of distinction between words and their negated forms, we’re on the road back to communicating entirely by grunts and gestures.

Is there something more hopeful these students are doing? Something that can be, perhaps, corrected?

I’ve written before about writers who, not extensive readers, rely heavily on the heard language, and sometimes don’t hear it correctly (or hear an incorrect version). Usually this shows up in missing or incorrect prefixes and other unstressed syllables, though, not added ones.

Do those who write “indefinitely” when they mean “definitely” come from families who hesitate or gulp before taking the serious step of feeling “definite” about something—and have my writers heard the gulp as an actual prefix that they interpret as “in” or “un”? Or are they among those writers who try to impart gravitas to their writing by choosing words that are longer than necessary, regardless of meaning?

I don’t know. Theories welcome; more important, REMEDIES welcome!

“Kids today can sit on their phones for hours, not even saying a word.”

The problem is merely the choice of verb and its modifiers, but the image for the reader is something else again. My own phone is smallish and flat, but still I think sitting on it would be sufficiently uncomfortable that I would not want to do it for hours, and if I tried to sit on it for hours I am sure I would have some words to say, most of them unpublishable.

Of course I knew what my student meant: he meant “kids today can sit staring at their phones for hours…”

Generally I expect that when people sit silent for hours they are thinking (do we still say “lost in thought”?). When I’m really thinking, I stare into space, or doodle meaningless and badly drawn shapes, faces, embellished words…. Yes, I am silent. I come back from these mental excursions with a decision, or a plan, or a tentative idea, or an explosive expression of frustration.

When I sit for hours staring at a screen (my computer screen—I’m too penny-wise to do much on my phone other than talk), I may start with a thought or question but generally then embark on a mildly interesting wander-by-click through loosely related sites, stopping from time to time to join in some emotion-laden exchange of “comments” or take some silly algorithm-driven “quiz” or loop back to feed my dog on “Criminal Case,” ending suddenly with the realization that hours have passed and I have no idea how or why. That, I presume, is the kind of “sitting” my student had in mind when he wrote this sentence.

And he was lamenting that kind of sitting, as do I.

Now, some long-term silent-sitting-on-things can be productive. I’m thinking of the mourning dove currently nesting in the rose vines along my porch roof (I can see her from my window right now). She and her spouse take turns, exchanging their dove whoo-OO hoo hoo hoo only during that process. This is the second year I’ve had mourning doves nesting in this spot, which is hugely popular. Over the last seven years I’ve had two robin couples, one of whom raised four wonderful kids and the other of whom lost their eggs to a night raider; one cardinal couple, nesting on their tiny straw saucer and raising three lovely babies; two couples of house finches, one of whom last year crafted an amazing apartment for a clutch of kids, the other of whom (could it have been the same ones?) moved into it at the beginning of this season to raise a clutch; and three years ago the other mourning dove pair. Doves lay two or even three clutches a season, usually in different nests; but this season the happy couple settled back into their original nest two days after the second little squab took wing. With each of these families, I have been moved by their trust, their patience, their tolerance of us and friends (and mail carriers and delivery guys) in our comings and goings, their care of eggs and babies, and the emptiness we feel at their departure.

Anyway, I have to thank my student for launching me on a train of thought that brought me to my own study window and the sweet bird outside. How can she be comfortable sitting on two eggs? How can she be comfortable once the eggs hatch into wiggly, beaky, demanding little critters tucked up under her body? I suppose she tolerates it because it’s only once or twice a year and because she is participating in the perpetuation of her species. I’m sure she knows that…

Students surfing other people’s selfies, sending texts (and tweets!), playing games, reading random stuff, are probably not perpetuating the species or giving anyone else much joy. So I wish my student had said what he meant. What he wrote launched me on a brief but hilarious contemplation of kids sitting like nesting birds on their phones, certainly not comfortable, possibly expecting something to hatch. What a contrast to actual birds, and to the students he actually was trying to describe!


Sitting on two eggs must be more uncomfortable than sitting on a cell phone, but SHE manages to do it for hours, not saying a word. A better bird than I! Image: alexsvirid/shutterstock.com