With apologies to Johnny Cash:
He didn't hear that train a comin’, rollin' right on through.
He was staring at his smart phone, but he didn't have a clue.
Got a text from Reno, just before he died.
Cute cats on the YouTube, then his butt got fried.
For two summers in college, I worked for Uncle Pete — the Union Pacific Railroad. Since it was a temporary job, there were no union dues; but I did make union wages, a whopping $4.95 per hour. That may not sound like much, but in one location, my room only cost $12.50 — per week. The second week, I did bring a piece of plywood to slide under the mattress; but with such low overhead, the work was quite profitable.
The job title was clerk telegrapher, filling in for two or three weeks at various depots when the regular man took vacation. No matter what high-dollar rock concert you might have gone to, it is unlikely that you have ever seen a percussionist as impressive as a railroad telegrapher. Those guys could send code faster than most people talk. So you're wondering how I qualified for the big bucks without possessing that skill. After the telegraph came a marvelous invention called the telephone. Orders for passing trains were dictated verbally from Denver, and copied down using two-sided carbon paper and a stylus.
Since I benefited greatly from Mr. Bell's invention, you might understand why I am baffled now by the phenomenon of texting and emojis. Conversation seems so much easier. The absurdity is advanced further by the fact that people are now spending good money on little electronic boxes that talk to them. Your poor old grandma is sitting alone in the nursing home. She'd love to hear your voice. You can call her Alexa, if it makes you feel better; I don't think she'll mind.
To be fair, the pleasures and sins of "social media" did not start with this generation. Long before my time, nosy neighbors were listening in on the party line. Some decades later, your little sister may have had her ear to the upstairs extension when you were talking to your girlfriend on the family phone. The technology continues to change, but people are still built the same.
Back when Star Trek first entered the American psyche, one of the many amazing features of the Starship Enterprise was a computer that knew everything, that could answer any question. Nowadays, there are supernerds who believe that such absolute data collection is an admirable goal. Disregarding the immediate paranoid reaction of anyone over the age of 50, there are noticeable flaws in that effort to date.
As any librarian or encyclopedia salesman could tell you, information without organization is useless. Increasing the data pile only adds to the problem. Defenders of the faith will shout, "search engine!" Yes, early on, search sites like AltaVista did show the way to actual facts. Here in the 21st century, Facebook, Google, et.al. are not particularly concerned with accuracy. Their primary motivation is to increase the wealth of those supernerds and their various investors.
Granted, the encyclopedia salesmen also wanted to make a profit, but there were no pop-ups in Volume C encouraging you to look at Volume T instead. The systematic redirection of searches to commercial sites makes fact finding a tedious process. In simpler times, students went to the library to do research. Now they can do that work on the internet in their bedrooms; but with one wrong click, they might find a librarian who is topless.
"Fake News" is a monosyllabic grunt that appeals to a certain segment of the population. (I won't mention any names.) The fancier term for this effort is "disinformation.” Both the word and its practice were created by the Soviets long before the internet came along.
The wide open free speech nature of the World Wide Web continues to have great appeal, but in the absence of editors and fact-checkers overall accuracy continues to decline; and outdated entries are never deleted. Intentional political disinformation probably represents only a tiny fraction of everything that’s out there, but our collective stupidity eventually may be the greater problem. If enough of the data is unreliable, it all becomes unreliable.
One final thought: If you need an app on your smart phone to check your credit score, you probably should be carrying a cheaper phone.
John Dailey, a Telegram contributing columnist, is the owner of Sandhill Books. Email comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.