We love to be amazed by our gadgets, and we should be | The View from Mudsock Heights

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More often than is justified, it’s thought that people, especially boy people, accumulate gadgets to make themselves feel cooler than they actually are.

But I think that a lot of the time it is merely because we are awestruck by our devices. We love to be amazed.

For instance, right now I am not typing but instead saying this column into a tiny computer called an iPhone SE. Because my dictation is not yet perfected (how do you get it to type the phrase “question mark,” for instance?), it will have had a quick polish on my desktop computer before finishing its path to publication.

But the process of a pocketable gadget turning my speaking into written words, even the idea of such a process, amazes me. It’s astonishing, too, that it can look through its little camera at a document and produce a letter-perfect text file of the contents, ready to cut and paste, a boon to both accuracy and laziness.

This is the time of year when the average age of people here is substantially greater than it is in, say, October. So a greater percentage of you will understand what I mean. The gadgets and devices that we have now are far beyond what we imagined when we were small.

Sure, there were pocket-sized communication devices in our science-fiction and secret-agent stories, but they didn’t actually exist, nor could the extent of their future abilities have been guessed.

This telephone, the smallest and in my estimation the best of the currently supported iPhones (and the cheapest – you can get one in good shape online for in the neighborhood of $100), does things that are in my view impossible. For instance, I can take it out at night and wave it around at the sky, and it will identify the stars I’m pointing it toward. A different program will tell me, when the telephone is pointed at an airliner passing overhead, the name of the airline, the flight number, where and when it took off, and where and when it will land.

I mean – c’mon! That’s amazing!

In the days before there was anything called the World-Wide Web, when the internet was just some college and government computers that could send data to one another, I wrote an article for a newspaper called Earshot, which was aimed at radio station newsrooms. The article was about the recent announcement of something called cellular telephony, and in it I took the view that if cellular systems ever came into wide use they might be helpful to those of us who went out to cover stories and then had to find a telephone somewhere so as to file our reports.

My speculation came true, of course – mostly. Cellular service isn’t exactly ubiquitous. There’s no cellular signal where I live or in places where a lot of other Athens County residents reside. Which, by indirect route, is how I came to have the little iPhone.

For about a year I’ve been experimenting with a phone operating system called Sailfish. It’s nice, hits all the basics, but is lacking in some things that are essential if you want to use it and have no cell service where you live. The most crucial of those missing features is “WiFi calling,” the ability to send and receive cellular calls over your home WiFi setup.

This led me, a couple of weeks ago, to get a strange and wonderful device made for T-Mobile, my carrier of choice, that hooks up to the Internet on one end and broadcasts a cellular signal on the other. It’s called a “microcell,” and it’s for places that otherwise don’t have even the hint of a single bar of signal strength, acting as a cell tower to nearby cell phones.

Though a great idea, it’s tricky to set up and requires the assistance of the Internet service provider, in my case Frontier, which needs to open some Internet ports (which would take longer to explain than it’s worth; if you’re interested, look it up). Not only would Frontier not help, the technician I waited through 40 minutes of bad music to talk with told me that Frontier support staff is forbidden even to discuss it. “I get the same request as yours every day,” he said. “I’m sorry.”

So I returned the T-Mobile device, got a refurbished iPhone SE on the cheap, set it up to be relatively secure (which is pretty easy), and now had cellular service via WiFi at my house. (WiFi calling is nothing particularly new. I had it on my late, lamented BlackBerry close to a decade ago. It’s built into the iPhone.)

What’s more, I saw that I had a voice message and when I opened up the phone application to retrieve it, I discovered it was transcribed for me to read without my calling “voice mail” (what a stupid term!) at all.

On the iPhone, everything just works. Every time I try to do something I’m left amazed. This version of Apple’s telephone was released more than three years ago, and that’s a lifetime in technology years. Then again, in those three years the bugs got worked out, so it’s more reliable than today’s folding mobile Googledroid whizbang.

I found fun in taking a few minutes to luxuriate in the wonder of it all.

In my reverie I realized that I take some things for granted as well. We used to have to do actual research for stories – not just interviewing people but getting important details that would give the story life.

What we can now learn in seconds with a quick online search used to involve shuffling through sheaves of scrawled notes, calling to the reference desk at the library and waiting for the answer, and sometimes formulating a way to write around an absent detail so that it would dissuade an editor from asking for the missing information.

We grow jaded with the wonders of the modern world, and to do that is to miss much of the fun in them. They have come so quickly, many of them have matured, some of them have disappeared, some others have turned into monsters. We cannot know what will meet which fate. (In some cases we can guess: Google’s upcoming Pixel phone will detect hand gestures by means of built-in radar. One can only speculate as to the effects of being bombarded with radar while the phone is in one’s pocket.)

But if you love fun, try to remember how these things would have seemed to you back a few years, when you were, say, 7 years old.

I didn’t get my 3-year-old iPhone because it makes me cool. You’re not impressed by it, nor should you be.

But I marvel at it. And that’s the point.

Editor’s note: Dennis E. Powell’s column appears every Thursday in The Athens NEWS. You can reach him at dep@drippingwithirony.com.

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