The anonymous story of “The Old Phone on the Wall” offers five Digital Era lessons about technology and human connection. This post shares the story and highlights the lessons. Readers are invited to share their take-aways from the tale as well. (Phone image from Bill Barber)
In the summer of 2012, someone shared the story of “The Old Phone on the Wall” in a Facebook group I belong to, after she received it via email. A quick Google search indicated the story had been circulating for several years, but the origin is unknown. Perhaps you’ve seen it.
People use the story in different ways and with different morals, many of which have spiritual undertones. Although I admit it got to me emotionally too, I couldn’t help but think about its Digital Era lessons. So I don’t spoil it for you, I’ll share the story first and then discuss my take-aways. I hope you’ll share yours as well.
The Old Phone on the Wall
When I was a young boy, my father had one of the first telephones in our neighborhood…I remember the polished, old case fastened to the wall. The shiny receiver hung on the side of the box. I was too little to reach the telephone, but used to listen with fascination when my mother talked to it.
Then I discovered that somewhere inside the wonderful device lived an amazing person. Her name was “Information Please” and there was nothing she did not know. Information Please could supply anyone’s number and the correct time.
My personal experience with the genie-in-a-bottle came one day while my mother was visiting a neighbour. Amusing myself at the tool bench in the basement, I whacked my finger with a hammer, the pain was terrible, but there seemed no point in crying because there was no one home to give sympathy.
I walked around the house sucking my throbbing finger, finally arriving at the stairway. The telephone! Quickly, I ran for the foot stool in the parlor and dragged it to the landing. Climbing up, I unhooked the receiver in the parlor and held it to my ear.
“Information, please” I said into the mouthpiece just above my head. A click or two and a small clear voice spoke into my ear.
“I hurt my finger…” I wailed into the phone, the tears came readily enough now that I had an audience.
“Isn’t your mother home?” came the question.
“Nobody’s home but me,” I blubbered.
“Are you bleeding?” the voice asked.
“No,” I replied. “I hit my finger with the hammer and it hurts.”
“Can you open the icebox?” she asked. I said I could.
“Then chip off a little bit of ice and hold it to your finger,” said the voice…
After that, I called “Information Please” for everything. I asked her for help with my geography, and she told me where Philadelphia was. She helped me with my math.
She told me my pet chipmunk that I had caught in the park just the day before, would eat fruit and nuts. Then, there was the time Petey, our pet canary, died. I called “Information Please,” and told her the sad story. She listened, and then said things grown-ups say to soothe a child. But I was not consoled. I asked her, “Why is it that birds should sing so beautifully and bring joy to all families, only to end up as a heap of feathers on the bottom of a cage?”
She must have sensed my deep concern, for she said quietly, “Wayne , always remember that there are other worlds to sing in.”
Somehow I felt better.
Another day I was on the telephone, “Information Please.”
“Information,” said in the now familiar voice.
“How do I spell fix?” I asked.
All this took place in a small town in the Pacific Northwest. When I was nine years old, we moved across the country to Boston. I missed my friend very much.
“Information Please” belonged in that old wooden box back home and I somehow never thought of trying the shiny new phone that sat on the table in the hall. As I grew into my teens, the memories of those childhood conversations never really left me.
Often, in moments of doubt and perplexity I would recall the serene sense of security I had then. I appreciated now how patient, understanding, and kind she was to have spent her time on a little boy.
A few years later, on my way west to college, my plane put down in Seattle. I had about a half-hour or so between planes. I spent 15 minutes or so on the phone with my sister, who lived there now. Then without thinking what I was doing, I dialed my hometown operator and said, “Information Please.”
Miraculously, I heard the small, clear voice I knew so well.
I hadn’t planned this, but I heard myself saying,”Could you please tell me how to spell fix?”
There was a long pause. Then came the soft spoken answer, “I guess your finger must have healed by now.”
I laughed, “So it’s really you,” I said. “I wonder if you have any idea how much you meant to me during that time?”
I wonder,” she said, “if you know how much your call meant to me. I never had any children and I used to look forward to your calls.”
I told her how often I had thought of her over the years and I asked if I could call her again when I came back to visit my sister.
“Please do”, she said. “Just ask for Sally.”
Three months later I was back in Seattle . A different voice answered, “Information.”
I asked for Sally.
“Are you a friend?” she said.
“Yes, a very old friend,” I answered.
“I’m sorry to have to tell you this,” she said. “Sally had been working part time the last few years because she was sick. She died five weeks ago.”
Before I could hang up, she said, “Wait a minute, did you say your name was Wayne?”
“Yes.” I answered.
“Well, Sally left a message for you. She wrote it down in case you called. Let me read it to you.”
The note said, “Tell him there are other worlds to sing in. He’ll know what I mean.”
I thanked her and hung up. I knew what Sally meant.
Digital Era Lessons
Here are some of the Digital Era lessons I think the story illustrates beautifully:
Technology adoption and use are fundamentally human endeavors. Although the story couldn’t be told without the phone, it’s actually about people and their relationships. The same holds true today. We don’t use Facebook or LinkedIn or Twitter because the technology is cool; we use them because of how they enable us to connect with one another.
Advancing technologies, at their core, really are “new tools for doing old things.” Sally, the operator, was effectively Wayne’s Google. He used the technology available to him at the time to access information that wasn’t readily accessible otherwise.
“High tech” and “high touch” are not mutually exclusive. There is a well-justified concern that if we use technology as a substitute for more intimate interactions or in other inappropriate ways, it will detract from rather than contribute to the better part of our humanity. But the relationship between Wayne and Sally had a lovely intimacy and created a true bond that would never have been possible without the phone that connected them.
Anonymous doesn’t have to mean impersonal. Wayne and Sally’s interactions also reveal some of the ways in which technology enables us to seek and find comfort from others who aren’t part of our immediate circle. As illustrated in the social media responses to a variety of tragedies (e.g., the tornadoes in Missouri in 2011 and Oklahoma in 2013; the wildfires in the Western US in the summer of 2013), new technologies can be used to bring people together in times of sorrow and crisis, and often enable people to forge strong bonds with veritable strangers. The fact that the story made its way to me via Facebook and email (in connection with a sorrowful event) reinforces the emotional connections digital technology can facilitate.
The “real world” is the one we create for ourselves. One of the biggest criticisms I hear about cyber interactions is that they’re not “real” and aren’t part of “real life.” This criticism reflects a bias that interactions only “count” when people share the same physical space and/or already have a pre-existing physical world relationship. But for Wayne and Sally, their interactions and the bond they created were very real and transcended the communications medium that brought them together. These days, digital interactions are an integral part of most of our lives, and some of our closest ties can be with people who are separated from us by great distances.
How about you? What are some of the Digital Era lessons you see in this story? I’d love to hear from you.
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