Point of View

Before you connect with Mom ...

May 8, 2010 

Mother's Day factoid: Clytemnestra, famously faithless wife to Agamemnon, might have received the world's first wireless telephone call. In "Agamemnon," the great Greek dramatist Aeschylus has her receiving news of her husband's victory in the Trojan War via a chain of mountaintop beacons, the first lit while Troy still burned.

Aeschylus doesn't tell us whether she got that far-off look in her eye and held up her hand to her companion when the message came in, the way we all do when we stop talking to someone right next to us in order to answer our mobile phones, or whether the person talking to her expelled breath heavily, rolled his eyes and muttered, "People used to have real conversations before they were being interrupted by mountaintop beacons every second of the day." And let's not even talk about whether you could receive beacons while driving.

I bring this up, of course, because of Mother's Day. Back when a phone call was a phone call - you twirled numbers on an actual rotary dial, a bunch of clacking mechanical gizmos in central offices connected copper wires and a signal traveled from your house to mom's house, where it made a bell ring - every May you could plan on reading a newspaper article telling you that Mother's Day was one of the busiest days of the year for long-distance calls. Everyone, of course, calls mom on Mother's Day, so whether college student or serviceperson, traveler or transplant, on that Sunday we burned up the wires.

Remember wires? For that matter, remember telephones? Remember dialing?

The Schenectady Beacon in 1988 quoted AT&T officials calling Mother's Day the second-busiest holiday of the year (after Christmas) for long-distance calls but also noted that, considering the use of 1-800 lines, most average business days are busier than either. The Deseret News of Salt Lake City made much the same claim 20 years previously, in 1967. No less a mythbuster than snopes.com supports the claim, leaving out Christmas and calling Mother's Day our busiest telephone holiday.

Melissa Buscher of Time-Warner Cable tells me that on Mother's Day the volume of calls on the company's "digital home product" (cable telephone service, to you and me) leaps by 16 percent over an average Sunday - though with the exception of Mother's Day and Christmas (if it falls on one), Sundays are their slowest days. SaskTel of Saskatchewan told the Mother's Day story in 2009, giving customers such archaic advice as avoiding busy calling times and dialing direct rather than using the operator.

Using the operator?

I don't mean to bury what Buscher said about Time-Warner's "digital home product," because it brings up the point I'm trying to make.

Now that wires are so unutterably 20th century, it's hard to measure how we get to Mom. Cell phone? Facebook pages? IMs? Anyhow, we're busy. According to royal.pingdom.com, we sent out 47 billion IMs last year - and 90 trillion e-mails. Mobile phones overtook landlines by number in about 2004, according to FCC statistics, and Internet phone lines did the same thing not much later.

But even the term "landline" is a misnomer. Back when we were "dialing" long-distance over wires, long-distance calls spent most of their lives in the air, bouncing across the country on microwave relay towers; meanwhile, today, "wireless" communication spends most of its life on fiber-optic cable as light waves, going wireless only at the first (and last) hops of its journey.

Meanwhile, webanalyticsworld.net tells us the Top 10 searched terms on Google are all connectivity terms like "Facebook" and "YouTube" and "gmail." The people at Twitter were too busy to tell me anything about their volume (but not too busy to tell me they were too busy), and the people at Google told me only that around Mother's Day they get a lot of searches for gifts and jewelry and printable cards.

Printable cards?

The point of all this? That while we think about Mom, we ought to give a thought to how we reach her. The telecommunications infrastructure, in fact, is a lot like Mom: around for a long time but more up-to-date than we imagine; worth a lot more attention than we usually pay and rarely appreciated until we try to do without. So maybe as we reach out we might disregard the SaskTel advice and call the operator - remember operators? - and give a thank you to her before we thank Mom.

Or, actually, maybe we should leave the phone out entirely and just send flowers. Clytemnestra received that early beacon-o-phone message, but long-distance calls didn't improve her life much. She killed her husband, because of it - and the end result was her own murder.

By her son.

Scott Huler, a former N&O reporter, is the author of the new book "On the Grid: A Plot of Land, an Average Neighborhood, and the Systems that Make Our World Work," to be published Tuesday.

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