Mark vs Cancer

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

The Incredibly Fantastic And Amazing Telephone

For as long as I can remember, I have had a casual fascination with telephones. Casual, I say, because I've never been fascinated enough to actually devote significant time or brain power toward fathoming their deeper mysteries.

Yet something about them will from time to time suddenly mystify and inspire me. At such moments, I will stare into the heavens and laugh a sly, wistful little laugh, marveling at their magic. (Then I will remind myself to--at some point--get a life.)

One such time was in December of 1994. I was in Londrina, Brazil, sitting in a small office of our local church, staring at a bright red rotary phone, waiting for it to ring for my semi-annual phone call from home. Having previously given my parents a daunting string of numbers to punch in from Colorado, I could now only sit and hope and pray that the darn thing would ring. I waited, fretted, considered that my parents may have botched the timing of the call due to time zone confusion, or that maybe an earthquake in Guatemala had snapped the telephone wire like a thread . . . and then it rang.

I picked it up desperately, composed myself, and then suddenly I was coolly speaking to my admiring parents and worshipful little brothers and sister as if they were sitting across the room. (Of note: my parents and siblings, as best as I can tell, continue their idolization of me to this day, unabated and magnified.)

How could a voice, speaking into a plastic and copper device from the other side of the planet, be transmitted in such perfect clarity (save for an incessant background clicking noise), without appreciable delay, into my homesick ears? How could sounds be instantaneously converted into electrical impulses, then relayed across tens of thousands of miles of copper wires precariously strung through mountains and jungles, across oceans and third world dictatorships, and then be reconverted into sound waves that so perfectly reproduced vocal tones and subtle inflections that I could easily discern the individual voices of my gaggle of pre-teen brothers, whose squawking sounded to me only like spasms of incomprehensible, guttural screeching?

How could it be done? It must be magic, I marveled briefly. And then I continued picking mango shreds from my teeth.

That event happened a relatively recent thirteen years ago, before the full advent of the now ubiquitous cell phone. (I believe in that same year my father had an attached company "car phone" that was roughly the size of a small microwave oven.) Cell phones have only made the telephone mystery exponentially more mystifying. How can I be sitting in my car in Chugwater, Wyoming, hit two buttons, wait for a few rings, and then be speaking to my sister in Littleton, Colorado for a brief second before she puts me on hold because she has to say goodbye to another one of her giggly friends?

What sort of genius was Alexander Graham Bell or Fred P. Motorola to figure this thing out?

Wait, don't explain it to me. First, I probably wouldn't understand it.

But second, there's something I like about not knowing, something mesmerizing, baffling, even humbling about such technology. To know how it works? That might diminish the allure, they way the thrill of a magic trick dissipates once you know the secret.

And the telephone is just one of a thousand technological marvels of our daily lives. From the time I flipped on a light switch this morning to the time I'm posting this on the internet from my home computer at night, and all of the medications and computer programs and automobiles and refrigerated foods and Sportscenter broadcasts and YouTube "debates" between sanctimonious Republican candidates in between, everything around us is a technological miracle, evidence of mankind's genius and creativity.

Some guys who are just like me (other than being a lot smarter and wealthier), figured this stuff out, harnessed the elements and the laws of physics, and brought these wonders into our living rooms.

But I'm fine not knowing all the details. Mr. Arthur C. Clarke once famously remarked, "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic."

I love a good magic trick. So allow me the pleasure of suspending my disbelief in this one thing,
of being awestruck by the quotidian telephone.

Now, if you'll please excuse me. My phone is ringing . . . again.


Goose said...

Mark I never really wonder about all those things because I understand how all of them work. It's really not that hard if you just think about it.

With joking aside, there are times that I too marvel at the world we live in and think about the many people who help make my life easier, but I try not to think too hard about it because then I start to get frustrated. For example, we have fast and amazingly reliable cars nowadays to get us places, but we can't come up with stop lights that don't make me sit at them for twenty minutes with no other cars in sight. Yeah we can fly to the moon and back, but we can't even find a way to stop the common cold. (I'm sorry dad, but Airborn just doesn't work that well) There are so many things that I wish we had solutions to or that I wish we could make better, but we haven't. Why not make a car that runs off water, or gloves that actually keep my finger warm, or CDs that are impossible to scratch.

I know that I should be thankful for this time period on the earth that we live in, but sometimes I wish I could just own my own land, raise some cows, have a nice sturdy horse to call my own, and eat by candlelight every night. You know the good old days where men were men and the world was simple. But then I start thinking of no Monday night football, no Taco Bell, and no indoor plumbing and I come back to my senses. Anyway, thanks for the post. And don't worry about not knowing how anything works, in todays world you don't have to know how anything works to use it. Isn't that wonderful.

Kristen said...

I think about things like this often. But it is usually a fleeting thought, because my brain can't comprehend. It's just like when I think about Heavenly Father and eternity, my brain is just not capable of understanding such things. I will be totally blown away one minute and then go on to thinking about what I am going to eat for dinner the next. It's a strange cycle. Thanks for the post.

Danalin said...

Agreed. Totally amazing. I love that there are people who have the minds to invent things like the telephone. I'm not that person, so I just sit in awe and wonder of them and what they are capable of accomplishing for the rest of us fools.

Tankfos said...

Mark the telephone is easy. Explain to me how a toilet works!!!

I stand in awe of what we humans have figured out. And it just keeps coming. Who knows what we'll be able to 20 years from now? walk on air?