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Monday, October 3, 2011

Untethered: Life in a 4G World

Some of my favorite childhood memories involve my grandmother, the sofa, and the telephone. The sofa was in the family room of our home and the telephone was right next to it. Attached to the phone's receiver was a coil of thick, maroon cord, a spiral that, when stretched out, must have been nearly 4 feet long. The cord would knot itself into a nasty tangle, so much so that when the phone rang, the first 20 or so seconds of conversation involved my grandmother cradling the receiver between her head and her neck while she, and her team of helpers (i.e. my sister and I) took our fingers to the mess.

Since Grandma made as many as a dozen calls a day to her very large circles of family and friends, that telephone cord became the bain of my existence. But now, in a world of not only cordless telephones, but telephones that no longer rely on a phone jack in the wall, Grandma sitting amongst the jumble of cord is a sweet memory. Those telephone calls were connection, in every sense. Now, though, I fear that those moments of connection are rapidly disappearing and I'm feeling adrift and untethered. In my lifetime, I've gone from using the cumbersome telephone in the family kitchen to calling home from a subway stop in Bangkok on a telephone so small and slim that it fits inside of my jean's pocket.

In my lifetime, I've gone from driving to my local bank to get cash in order to pay for things to sliding a card and now holding my PDA up to a transponder at my grocery store, or hardware store, or department store. I've gone from having my favorite bank teller cash my paycheck and filling me in on the latest gossip to having an unseen electronic hand put money into my bank account.

The way that I watch television has also been altered. Growing up, my ferocious need to watch "The Dukes of Hazzard" on the family room TV involved a complex set of negotiations with my older sister, Mom and Grandma. And heaven forbid you tried to schedule anything from 12:00PM to 4:00PM on a weekday, as that was when Grandma watched her "stories", a.k.a. the entire line-up of CBS daytime soap operas. Now, though, I have ample opportunities to stay current with my favorite shows, and none of them involves learning how to program a VCR!  Sure, you can invest in TiVo, but most of the time the broadcast and cable channels will repeat a program within a couple of hours of its initial airing. These so-called "slugs" have proved so popular that TV ratings firms, such as Nielsen, have figured out a way to measure the slug watchers. And if I'd like to watch an episode of my favorite show from my seat on the commuter-rail, then I can watch it on my phone or on my iPad. This is a far cry from everyone gathering around to find out who shot J.R.!

Right now, the U.S. Postal Service is in danger of financial collapse as online efficiency is making physical mail obsolete. Computer makers, one of the drivers of the Postal Service's rapid descent, are also fighting to figure out this untethered life, as consumers and corporations have gone from dial-up to 4G, and have abandoned cumbersome desktop computers for the freedom and flexibility of laptops and tablets.

But for all of the "golly-gee" of technology that's allowing us to do almost anything at anytime with almost anyone, I don't think we're satisfied. You want to know why so many people are at your local coffee shop?? Because alongside the caffeine, we're craving a connection with each other. For all of our technological know-how, the true genius of humanity will always be our ability to create unique relationships with one another, to truly connect. I'm just saying:)

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