Round Two: Reminiscing about phones with buttons and cords

Head shot of Tom Hardesty, a white man with short hair in a grey golf polo with the caption "Round Two with Tom Hardesty"

In the May 10 issue of The Portager, our Wendy DiAlesandro wrote an interesting piece about retiring Portage County Engineer Michael Marozzi. In it, Marozzi details how much things have changed in our society in the 34-plus years he worked as county engineer, including the fact that when he first came on board, there were no computers on any of the desks in the office.

Not one. Zip. Zero. Nada.

That was 1989.

As I read Wendy’s story, I began to think about how different things are since 1989, which really wasn’t all that long ago (I mean, we’re not talking centuries here), and if that means things are better now, or worse.

So I thought it would be fun to compile a brief list of point-counterpoint on whether life is better or worse than it was back in the 1980s — Then vs. Now, if you will. (Politics will be omitted from the list because, well, they’re always bad).

Here goes:

Then: You could get a living, breathing human being on the line when you called your doctor’s office, the bank, the credit card company, or any other business or government organization you needed to reach. It’s a difficult concept to grasp in our society today, but an actual person would answer the phone.

Now: You have to wade through endless menus, hitting numbers for this or that until your fingers bleed, and sit on hold for egregious amounts of time before someone answers — only to hear them say, “I’m sorry, this is the wrong department for your issue. Please hold while I transfer you to our next available representative.” And cross your fingers that you don’t get disconnected and have to start all over. Remember the TV commercial where the guy sits on his kitchen floor, completely defeated, and says blankly into the phone, “Representative”? Well, it’s not funny anymore.

Then: Speaking of using the phone, you could use a rotary landline or a push-button landline. Either way, it was a landline. If you were lucky, you had call waiting and could receive a second phone call while you were on the line with the original call. If not, the second caller was treated to the dreaded busy signal blaring in their ear. If you were trying to call someone with a teenager in their house, forget it — the phone was going to be busy for hours (I know, because I was that teenager). You also had no idea who was calling you when the phone rang unless you were one of the few with caller ID. While this made for the anonymity necessary to turn prank calls into an art form, it also meant it was open season for telemarketers to blow up dinner when they called right at 6 p.m. And it was always right at 6 p.m. One more thing: There were some cordless phones available, which were about the size of your forearm with antennas long enough to relay communications to the Moon and back — which is where the voice on the other end of the line sounded like it was coming from.

Now: We have smartphones, although we use them for just about everything but making phone calls. While they have brought a screeching halt to the prank-call industry, they’ve certainly added several levels of difficulty to driving a motor vehicle.

Then: Ah, it was so simple. You went to the grocery store, picked out the items you needed, put them in your shopping cart and, when finished, you proceeded to one of several checkout lines, where a nice cashier rang everything up and a nice bagger busily put said items into bags for you, then carefully placed the bags into your cart. There was only one problem: The system worked. And if I’ve learned anything in my 55 years, it’s that systems that work will be eradicated from the face of the Earth.

Now: Basically, we’re all employees of the grocery chains, only we don’t get paid for our work. They made us bag our own groceries a long time ago, and now we have to ring up our own items because the suits at these places figured out they get a larger piece of the pie if they don’t have to pay those pesky employees. In an era where we’re more cognizant than ever of passing along germs, the suits are ensuring that we pass along germs by having us constantly touch the same buttons and keypads as everyone else in the store. And half the time these self-checkout machines don’t work right anyway, so one of the few humans left on the payroll has to come running over to either fix the problem or handle the checkout themselves. If you’re lucky, there will be one checkout lane available with an actual human being standing at the register; problem is, that line often stretches deep into the store, discouraging you from getting in it and forcing you to one of the endless rows of self-checkouts — which is the whole idea, anyway. My favorite part: when you get an email from the store wanting feedback on your “experience” there. It will say: “How did we do?” This should be the response on these surveys: “How did you do? You didn’t do anything. I, on the other hand, was great.” On the flip side, there’s grocery delivery service, where angels sent from above do your shopping for you and then bring it right to your front door, which is almost enough to make you forgive the suits’ other transgressions. Almost.

Then: With no internet, all transactions were done on paper — and could result in inches-thick stacks of it to the point where, if you listened hard enough, you could hear another tree falling in the Amazon. Not to mention the mountains of trash that ensued because of all the paper flying around.

Now: Because of the internet, information is accessed in a matter of moments rather than days or weeks, speeding up the pace of commerce and saving forests everywhere. But it has also made our personal information more vulnerable than ever, meaning we have to place our trust in perfect strangers at banks, retailers, etc. to protect that information 24 hours a day. Not all that comforting when you get right down to it.

Then: If you wanted to know what was going on in the world, you read a newspaper or watched the evening news at 6:30. Or maybe you had a little time to watch NBC’s “Today” show in the morning or ABC’s “Nightline” before you went to bed. You got your news fix then went on with your life.

Now: With the 24-hour news cycle, you’re constantly subjected to politics every minute of every day (I know I said no politics, but this is just a general reference) and the ceaseless rehashing of horrible events to the point that you see them in your sleep. When U.S. forces invaded Panama in 1989 to depose that country’s de facto ruler, General Manuel Noriega, they blasted rock music at him around the clock — including, of course, Van Halen’s classic hit “Panama” — while he was holed up in the Vatican Embassy in Panama City. The idea was for the loud music to break him down mentally to the point that he would surrender — which he did about a month after the invasion. Had the 24-hour news cycle existed then in the same capacity as it does now, just a few hours of being forced to listen to the Democrats and Republicans rail at each other over and over and over would have had Noriega on his knees begging to be captured.

Then: I’ve talked about this one before, but it used to be that maps were needed for navigation. Not the maps you get on your smartphone these days, but paper maps with squiggly lines all over the place, words too small to read, and creases and folds that always seemed to be in the absolute worst spot on the map for where you needed to go. They also never folded back up the same way as you got them — at least not without tearing — and if you needed to use a map in the dark of night in your car, you had to turn on the dome light and risk damaging your eyesight as you held up the map and tried to make heads or tails out of it.

Now: Smartphones and GPS have forever solved this problem. It’s almost too easy. Sure, there are times when, inexplicably, GPS will lead you straight into a river or lake rather than that restaurant you were going to, but nothing’s perfect.

Then: On the road and need to make a phone call? You had two options: pull into someone’s driveway, knock on their door and ask to use their phone (you can imagine the inherent dangers that came with that one), or find a pay phone somewhere and scrounge around your car hoping there’s a quarter laying around in there. If there was, you had one shot at getting someone on the line; as soon as the first sound was detected on the other end, you heard the quarter sinking farther into the phone unit, indicating it was gone forever. And if that sound was an answering machine, unless you had more quarters in your pocket, you were, well, out of luck. So you had to get good at timing it: was it three rings and a hangup, or four? Guess wrong, and whatever your emergency was just got a whole lot worse.

Now: Our old friend, the smartphone, rides to the rescue again. Gone are the days of counting quarters, guessing the number of rings, standing in the pouring rain and zero-degree weather, and seeing just about every person who walks past you as a potential threat to your life while you’re helplessly tethered to that absurdly short metal phone cord. If you’ve ever held a payphone to your ear late at night, you know exactly what I’m talking about.

And there’s a snippet of how life has changed just in the last 35-40 years. Volumes could be written on the topic, but this short list illustrates how we have clearly regressed in some areas and advanced — sometimes by light years — in others.

The biggest giant leap: I managed to get through it without using phrases like “back in my day” and “get off my lawn.” But I’m keeping them close by.

And my smartphone closer.

+ posts

Tom Hardesty is a Portager sports columnist. He was formerly assistant sports editor at the Record-Courier and author of the book Glimpses of Heaven.