There was a time when connectivity was the enemy of our romance with imagined possibilities.
The digital DJ in my iPod was on to something the other day when it decided to play a mix that started with Joni Mitchell’s Night Ride Home before proceeding on to Ella Fitzgerald and Count Basie bouncing through the classic Tea for Two.
Mitchell’s song is a favorite. She rhapsodizes about hitting the “open road,” something that perhaps resonates more with a child of Saskatchewan. An unfettered stretch of highway is the perfect representation of escape from the narrow borderlands of the familiar and domestic. Perhaps I want to see this because I also spent my teens traveling the same kind of narrow asphalt ribbons that threaded through pines and aspens, sometimes reaching pockets of high-mountain snow refusing to yield even to August. The chance to fly along these highways alone or with a girlfriend made them all the more mysterious and promising.
A clear highway to the horizon was a potent adolescent meme. It meant freedom, and an opening to different and perhaps dangerous possibilities: the kind fearless independence suggested in the film Thelma and Louise. Just without the cliff.
We can make too much of a few song lyrics, but I was struck with lines in both songs that referenced the pleasures of not being connected. In those days there was romance in the idea of leaving behind the entrapments of the telephone, among other things. Mitchell sings about the pleasure of hitting the “open road” with her boyfriend with the promise of “No phones ’til Friday.”
What’s changed? How did the phone go from being a nuisance to what it is now: an addictive preoccupation, especially for the young?
I can’t say I get the same thrill of infinite possibilities today rolling through the countryside of the Delaware Valley, pretty though it is. I’m older. But for me the car is still an escape from the phone. The automobile salesperson was annoyed when I told him I had no interest in connecting my mobile device to the car’s “Sync” system. To be sure connecting an IPod made a lot of sense, even though the “Sync” lady responds to my requests for music as if I’m speaking Polish. My cell stays off but close, mostly because the not-so-open road now throws up obstacles that can make a night ride home more treacherous.
But here’s the point. There was a time when connectivity was the enemy of our romance with imagined possibilities. The phone was an instrument of obligation. It represented unwanted entanglements and reminders. Irving Caesar’s lyrics in Tea for Two promises lovers unbroken time together, uninterrupted by “friends or relations on weekend vacations.” In this perfect space, he writes,
We won’t have it known
That we own a telephone, dear
What’s changed? How did the phone go from being a nuisance to what it is now: an addictive preoccupation, especially for the young? I suspect this reversal is related to changing patterns of courtship and marriage. 50 or 60 years ago there was a clearer threshold that divided living with one’s family from the transition to launching an independent life. Among middle class teens, passing this milestone occurred earlier. And most couldn’t wait to be on their own. The open road in mid-twentieth century America was paved with endless possibilities that would end too soon. In those years, teens caught in the thrall of an escape fantasy could never imagine that Jack Kerouac or Peter Fonda would want to check in with mom every night.
For many reasons we are now less likely to see young couples pairing off into early marriage. Most depend on their cell phones to maintain a larger and less exclusive network of friends. To be sure, they still romanticize moving out of the shadows of the family. But the means for taking on the world is now less physical than psychical. Phones and their digital wonders now function as devices for transporting facsimiles of oneself onto social networks of peers. They promise a better life through the constant connectivity that seems a safer substitute for an actual search to find paradise just beyond the next hill.
So the modern versions of this old family appliance no longer carry the stigma of an unwanted tether. They are now instruments of an inner space few want to leave.