In “The Long Winter,” one of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s classic children’s books, Ma Ingalls expresses regret that her family has become dependent on kerosene lanterns, which went dark when catastrophic snow in the Dakota Territory prevented the railroad from delivering manufactured goods. Her parents, Ma said, made their own candles. “We didn’t lack for light when I was a girl, before this newfangled kerosene was ever heard of.”
“That’s so,” Pa Ingalls replied. “These times are too progressive. Everything has changed too fast. Railroads and telegraph and kerosene and coal stoves — they’re good things to have, but the trouble is, folks get to depend on ‘em.”
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I read that book to my little boy about 25 years ago, and I doubt a month has passed since that I haven’t been reminded of that insightful exchange. That was about the time this internet thing was picking up steam, but most of us didn’t have access at home yet. (Cyber Monday is a remnant of the olden days when workers would abuse the faster internet connections at work after window shopping on Black Friday.) Now I’m irritated that every airport doesn’t have fast, free Wi-Fi and charger ports at every gate seat like Clinton National.
On the tarmac at Chicago O’Hare last week, I was desperately downloading podcasts onto my phone before takeoff because I was suddenly unable to log into Netflix on my Kindle tablet to watch the documentary I had downloaded to occupy myself on the plane. Being alone with my thoughts for an hour and a half — unthinkable! (It turned out that someone in Indonesia had hijacked my Netflix account. That never happened to my parents, although my dad would invite me to dinner periodically so that I could reset the blinking 12:00 on his VHS recorder.)
Laurie Santos, the Yale University psychology professor whose podcast “The Happiness Lab” I recommended in this space a couple of weeks ago, says humans have an innate need to share experiences. This is why babies point before they can walk or talk. William Henry Fox Talbot invented the photographic negative process in order to share vacation scenery, and now every human experience — even the most routine — needs to be captured via smartphone and shared on social media. My dinner companion in Chicago declared her walleye to be photo-worthy.
One member of Congress, Anthony Weiner, went to prison over his criminal smartphone photo habit, and another member, Katie Hill, resigned after a case of “revenge porn” revealed a relationship that may have violated House ethics rules. The rule is fine. Revenge porn needs to be a federal crime.
Every technological advance comes with some unintended consequences. There still seem to be people who fear books, which is why bookstores and libraries celebrate Banned Books Week every September. Facebook, long my social media drug of choice, faced the issue of dishonest political advertising by deciding to take the money and look the other way. Twitter, meanwhile, is rejecting all political ads, factual or not.
Not all unintended consequences of technology are negative. I watch a lot of crime shows, and cellphone tracking has solved almost as many murders as DNA.
I noticed last week that Arkansas Attorney General Leslie Rutledge is lobbying for a federal version of the Kelsey Smith Act, which would require telecommunications companies to provide law enforcement agencies with cellphone coordinates in emergency situations. About half of all states, including Arkansas, have adopted similar laws since the 2007 kidnapping and murder of a Kansas teenager whose cellphone provider refused for days to disclose the location of her phone to anyone but Kelsey herself. When the coordinates were finally provided, her body was located in less than an hour.
The Kelsey Smith Act sounds like a no-brainer, but it failed in Congress in 2016 because it lacked any safeguards preventing law enforcement officers from abusing cellphone tracking to spy on spouses or exes. Like technology, legislation can have unintended consequences.
Our smartphones have become extensions of our personalities. Are you one of those brave souls who likes his phone thin and sleek and unencumbered by a chunky protective case? Do you need a PopSocket? I only recently learned there was a name for those collapsible handles people stick on the back of their phones. I noticed last week that a friend has outfitted her phone with two PopSockets so she can slide a finger between them.
Some women have phone cases bedazzled with more bling than one of Porter Wagoner’s jackets. Not me. But I do insist on the kind of case that acts as a backup charger. When you are as dependent as I am, you can’t afford for your phone to go dark.
Email Gwen Moritz, editor of Arkansas Business, at GMoritz@ABPG.com and follow her on Twitter at @gwenmoritz.