Living in a World of Smart Things
By NANCY PATRICK
In case you hadn’t noticed, “smart” stuff surrounds us: phones, homes, classrooms, cars, and even a little contraption called Alexa. We can give her commands such as “set the timer for 20 minutes” or “play (song) for me.” I usually forget Alexa sits right there on a table in my den and opt to set my kitchen timer or play the CD of my song.
My husband and I resisted the idea of smart phones for as long as we could without losing touch with others in our world. For example, I used to talk to my friends on the phone or email them, but then most of them found texting easier and more convenient. Using my flip phone required a type of Morse code in which I had to punch a certain number of times for the letters on each number tab on the phone. Since texting proved so difficult, Mike and I reluctantly entered the world of smart phones.
Some people even have smart houses. These come equipped with computer systems that operate the lights, appliances, security system, and might even run a hot bath for when you get home. (I’m not sure about the last one, though.) These smart houses have cameras attached to the door bell, allowing residents to see who stands on the porch.
Before I retired from teaching, some classrooms had even become “smart.” These rooms contain computers connected to the internet and smart boards (replacements for overhead projectors). I retired when I became afraid the principal would replace me with a “smart” teacher. I feared seeing a younger, thinner, more eloquent, and hipper version of myself.
I’ve saved the smart car for last because I just got one. My husband and I typically keep our cars for 10 years before buying a new one, so imagine our surprise when our new car didn’t even have a CD player. The salesperson told us that everyone downloads music and podcasts now. Hardly anyone listens to CDs! I didn’t know that! And I’ve yet to hear a podcast, so I need to learn a little about those.
When I say we just bought a smart car, I’m not talking about the tiny cars that actually have the name “smart” because of their fuel efficiency. I refer to the new vehicles that have backup cameras, Bluetooth, GPS, beepers that tell you to get back in your lane, an invisible foot that slows you down on the interstate if you get too close to the car in front of you, and best of all, a little message board that warns you of possible ice or obstructions on the road ahead.
How in the world did all this happen during my own lifetime? From 1950 to 2020, my world has become almost unrecognizable. I remember shopping at Anthony’s department store in Merchant Park Shopping Center in the 1950s. The salesclerks would write sales receipt on a pad with carbon copies. Then they would give the customer the carbon and send the original in a tube (similar to drive in banks) to the office upstairs. Everything was done on paper.
My generation typed all our school papers on typewriters. I actually did most of my work on a manual Royal, not getting an electric typewriter for many years. I will never forget the tedious editing required for papers that had to have carbon copies. And I’ll always remember the times I misjudged how much space to leave at the bottom of a page for my footnotes (bibliography). I had to retype many a page because I had not left enough space.
When I began teaching school in the 1970s, teachers had no calculators or copy machines. Well, I take that back. We did have a mimeograph copier. Teachers typed their handouts or exams on a thin, bluish sheet of plastic which the typewriter keys cut for the letters. That sheet attached to a big round drum in a machine that contained ink that printed on paper as the drum went around and around.
I enjoyed shocking my students with horror stories of living in a time before cell phones. Their reactions included disbelief, concern, frustration, and confusion. What happened if an emergency occurred at home during my school day? What if I became ill and needed to go home? What if my parent came to school and needed to give me something? My students could not imagine that I lived in a day without constant connection to my family and friends. By the way, when I explained that the school offices had our parents’ contact information and our schedule cards and could thus reach us if necessary, they just couldn’t fathom such an inconvenience.
So, why am I hung up on “smart” society? Probably because from my perspective, the “smarter” we have become, the dumber we behave. “Smartness” has made everything instantaneous. We microwave meals, drive through a McDonalds window, bank online, and access more information than we could ever need or understand, yet many have lost the ability to think, to solve, to negotiate, to listen, to compromise, to collaborate, to meditate, or even to enjoy life.
Henry David Thoreau went to Walden Pond to escape the distractions of the world. He felt the solitude would provide the environment for his soul to develop. Although I don’t want to go as far as Walden Pond, I would like to see our society slow down and breathe deeply. I would love to see our patience grow, our concern deepen, our benevolence extend, our acceptance of others expand, and also our appreciation of the goodness we still have.
Some of us have become a little battle weary from so much societal strife; however, we can still see people willing to risk their own safety in situations like last year’s Australian fire crisis. Even in Abilene, a physician’s assistant recently jumped into the cold waters of the pond at Fairway Oaks to save two little boys.
All around us, people give money, time, energy, and encouragement to those in need. We receive reassurance every time we hear stories of people donating kidneys to perfect strangers who would die without them.
True, the world seems awry, but Robert Browning once wrote, “God’s in His heaven; all’s right with the world.” Even though all might not be right, much truly is right. We just have to look.
Nancy Patrick is a retired teacher who lives in Abilene and enjoys writing