The following is excerpted from one of my most popular newsletter pieces along with some of the wonderful feedback I received.
I was recently telling someone about the trip Marcie and I took to Europe 30 years ago with backpacks after college. When there was a week remaining before Marcie would leave London to head home, and I would be staying on for more backpacking, I connected with my friend Kevin, in western Ireland, and traveled with him for a couple of weeks.
My friend asked how we did it without a cell phone and I explained:
I pumped a bunch of coins into a payphone in London, called Kevin’s parents and asked them if Kevin made it to Ireland as he had hoped. They said yes and gave me a phone number where I could reach the bar he was working.
I pumped more coins into the payphone, called the bar, and made a plan to meet Kevin a week later.
The following week, I took an overnight boat from London to Ireland, then a cross country bus from the east coast of Ireland to Galway on the west coast.
I walked from the bus stop to the bar and found Kevin waiting for me.
Today, that kind of thing would seem impossible without a smartphone. People wonder aloud all the time: “What did we ever do before cellphones?”
That got me thinking about a couple of things:
First, with how reliant we think we are on technology, it’s healthy to take a step back and realize the technology is just a tool, and without it we would use other tools. The tools wouldn’t be as convenient, but we would get by. And perhaps the next time we’re thinking about that new piece of technology we have to have, we might think twice and hold off until we need it instead of just wanting it.
Second, one of the recurring things I write about is gratitude. Any discussion about the amazing things we can do with smartphones should start and stop with gratitude. Those devices are incredible. And if we find ourselves complaining that the new iOS has bugs, or Siri is unable to take our request because it’s busy or malfunctioning, or we lost a call because of bad cell service, it’s time to stop and remember how lucky we are; to recognize we are experiencing First World Problems, and to remember an attitude of gratitude is better, and more appropriate, than complaining, in almost every situation.
Here is what some readers had to say:
- I just sent a message to my former boss and mentioned that tomorrow will be 30 years from the day I started working here and how lucky I feel to have had that opportunity. The company where I work is small, but over the years I have seen many people come and go. Many I am still in touch with and others bring a smile when I think of them. Since the day I started here, technology has changed everything about how we do business, but the one thing that hasn’t changed is the importance of the human connection behind the work.
- I also did a lot of traveling in the 1980s, both alone and with friends who I met up with at points along the way. From the age of 14 to 24, I spent a minimum of four weeks a year on another continent, often by myself, and my parents were supportive and not too worried. It was, of course, pre-cell phone and email and we didn’t talk more than once every few days, sometimes once a week–by pay phone. I can’t imagine that happening today. And yet people were met successfully, nothing really bad ever happened, and I had wholly immersive experiences that shaped my life and confidence forever. One thing that really struck me as I read your piece is how much more responsibility and trust we had to have back then. If you made plans, you had to keep them, because there was no way to call the other person to let them know you weren’t going to show up. You just had to make it happen. I know that for me this sense has slipped somewhat with the availability of cell phones, texting and constant connection and communication. You remembered the phone numbers you needed and figured out how to make contact when it was essential, and had to trust between calls that things were fine. My mother, who was an ESL teacher, used to make seven-week treks to parts of the world where her students came from. She would fax us every couple of weeks just to let us know she was still alive and give us an account of her latest adventures and the people she’d met. We were super excited to get these reports and we never worried about her in the in between times. Again, I can’t imagine this happening today. It seems the ability to be in constant communication has made us a bit more lazy in some respects and more anxious in others. I love the life that has been made possible for me by smartphones and other technology, but your post is a good reminder not to lose sight of the good things in ourselves we used to be able to count on before we delegated them to technology.
- My kids don’t understand what we did without GPS. They ask, “how did you ever get anywhere?” We explain, “Maps! Do you know what a map is?” They just don’t get it.
- What we also could learn is that in this day and age of the First World, if we don’t keep up, we will have problems. Imagine that you don’t have a cell phone and you need to make a call. Where are the pay phones? You might have to ask someone if you can use their cell phone. And be grateful when the stranger says yes.
- I’m watching my son grow up in a world where technology is a given. We didn’t even have an answering machine when I was his age! And in my house we didn’t have a TV for a number of years, until my grandparents moved in with me when I was nine. They brought a little b&w portable, which stayed in their bedroom except at lunchtime on weekdays when they brought it out to the kitchen for their favorite soap opera, and on very special occasions when the family wanted to watch something like a Woody Allen movie. At 3, my son knows how to use an iPad to get to Netflix, YouTube, and a couple of games we let him play. It’s way too much, and we are working on backing him away from the technology. Which means backing ourselves away from it! I love to think of the people who traveled before there were pay phones, or telegraphs/telegrams. I love historical letters that made their way across oceans when family members moved. They tell us so much! Yes, it might have taken longer. But yes, it was also “easy,” in its own way, when you didn’t have today’s technology in mind.
What are your thoughts? Join the conversation with your comments…