Don Cunningham: Has the iPhone Cost Us our Neighborliness?

By Colin McEvoy on September 5, 2018

This column, written by LVEDC President and CEO Don Cunningham, originally appeared in The Morning Call and on the newspaper’s website on September 5, 2018. (Click here to read Cunningham’s previous columns.)

Don Cunningham

Don Cunningham

My wife’s mom turned 90 last month.

As was appropriate, the family had a big party. Relatives from near and far came to pay homage to a wonderful lady and a significant achievement.

After knocking down nine decades, her shoulders don’t function too well, her walk is a bit unsteady but her memory remains remarkable.

She’s a lock on the names and birthdays of her seven children and 10 grandchildren and great-children along with instant recall of every great-niece or -nephew from Indiana and all the relatives seen only once a decade or two at funerals, weddings and monumental birthdays.

I’ve met some of them three or four times and can’t come within six letters in the alphabet of guessing the first letter of a name.

She recently spent 10 minutes describing to me every detail of a house in Bethlehem she lived in as a child back in 1935 that had an outhouse. I’m pretty sure I can’t tell you what color our bedroom is painted.

There’s a magnificent group photo taken at her party of 60 or so family and friends. She’s seated in the middle. On her lap is her youngest great-granddaughter, who’s not yet a year old. They’re the bookends on four generations of their Italian-Irish clan. The alpha and the omega.

Theresa Maioriello Collins was born during the presidency of Calvin Coolidge, her great-granddaughter during that of Donald Trump. They’re separated by 90 years and two generations — and the most extraordinary changes to take place in the history of humans.

Theresa was born in 1928, the year after the first telephone call was transmitted across the Atlantic Ocean from New York to London. Her magical birthday moment was captured on an iPhone, edited in hand with an app, and posted on Facebook within hours for all the world to see.

It’s a bit frightening to think of how the 90th birthday of her new great-granddaughter, Layla Kophazy, may be recorded. I’m guessing no one will have to physically travel in from Indiana or South Carolina to participate. I’m glad I won’t be around to forget everyone’s name.

Theresa was born at a time before television, where working class families were just getting automobiles and some houses had yet to get indoor plumbing. The Great Depression was just a glint in Herbert Hoover’s eye as he was launching his campaign for president against New York Gov. Al Smith, known as the Happy Warrior, possibly because he was opposed to Prohibition.

World War I went by the oxymoron of The Great War because World War II was still 13 years in the future for America. Travel to Europe was by ship because commercial air travel had yet to be established. People still told their children the moon was made of cheese because space travel had yet to occur and unravel that one.

Penicillin — the first antibiotic — was born the same year as Theresa. There were no organ transplants; when yours died so did you. Hip and knee replacements were science fiction. You just got a cane and became the crooked little man possibly from a crooked little house.

An apple was something you ate. If you were lucky, someone had a tree in the neighborhood and you could steal a few for a snack with your friends. In the meantime, Steve Jobs was born, died, and founded a company in 1976 that has changed the way we live, work, and communicate.

Just a few weeks before Theresa’s 90th, Apple surpassed $1 trillion dollars in market value, the first company to do so in the history of the world.The company went public in 1980 at $22 per share. According to Bloomberg, if you bought one share back then, you got a 40,000 percent return on your investment, which means today you could afford the iPhoneX that starts at $999.

More than any other, this is the development that has turned our world upside down, and it was just introduced on June 29, 2007, a month before Theresa’s 79th birthday. It has changed scholarship and education since everything you need to know is now a Google search away in your hand. Maps and directions have become obsolete since in one click the Global Positioning System kicks in for your benefit. People no longer need to talk to one another — or look up from their phone — because every relationship and conversation they need seems to be in their hand. Long gone is the rotary phone mounted on the wall in the kitchen. Luxury then was a super long cord that became tangled and grimy with dirt but allowed you to walk down the hall to get out of earshot of your parents.

You had to answer the phone when it rang, except during dinner. Then you punished the caller for being dumb enough to call while the family was eating. I think call waiting may have existed when I was a child during the ’70s, but you had to buy it through the telephone company and pay for it on your phone bill. That was a luxury my dad didn’t think we could afford. He already bought the long cord.

It’s amazing that despite this primitive form of telecommunications, we still managed to meet people for dinners and events. Today, my son will call me when he leaves, when he arrives and blast me with texts if I’m one minute behind. Somehow, we managed to send a man to the moon and back before we even had the super long cords on the kitchen phone.

Back then, my dad and his buddies would just stop in. People used to knock on doors and visit. Amazingly, when it happened, people were happy not irritated. The first move was to offer them a beer, usually a 16-ounce returnable from the refrigerator in the garage that was the size of a small Volkswagen. There was no advance call.

Now, if someone knocks on my door, I think, “Who the heck is that?” I figure it’s either someone running for state representative or a Jehovah’s Witness, either way, I don’t feel compelled to answer. If it were a friend, neighbor or relative, they would have called or texted.

I think that iPhone has cost us our neighborliness, and the opportunity to just stop and drink beer in the afternoon when someone knocks on the door. A lot has changed in 90 years, much for the better but we’ve also lost a lot. That’s why it’s very important to celebrate 90th birthdays, to travel from near and far and to listen to the stories of people who once used outhouses.

The Theresa Maioriello Collinses of the world are the antidote to the technology that makes life easier but slowly erodes the connections that make it worth while.

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