The menace of text

My extremely competent now 80-year old mother is deft with email, and carries her flip phone with her everywhere she goes.  She’s no Luddite; she just doesn’t want to be prisoner of a “smartphone.”  Lately she’s been menaced by text–the presumption that she, along with everyone else in the world, carries a smartphone and is happy to communicate with their thumbs.  It’s a not-so-subtle form of ageism, and while we’re at it, classism, too.

The funeral home in charge of my aunt’s remains texted my mother that the ashes were ready. The car service to the airport, where my mother was headed to fly with the remains to bury them, texted confirmation of the pickup.  My mother, having confirmed the reservation by phone, didn’t get the idea that she was supposed to respond, so the pickup was cancelled.  The night after the burial, I was crashing in my mother’s hotel room, and we were both woken by middle-of-the-night automated texts from the car service to confirm the return pickup.

When I explained to my not-easily-agitated mother that she could likely opt out of texting by informing people she does business with not to communicate with her that way, I realized, that’s a problem, too.   She shouldn’t have to opt out.  Besides, that option is usually presented in the tiny print most humans–even my meticulous former-stockbroker-mother–don’t read.

The issue intensified when my mother had some work done on her bathroom. Because she is a caregiver to my father, it was easier for her to order the supplies for the plumber online, through Loews.  Because it was a large charge, she got an email alert from her credit card.  Because she didn’t immediately respond (my mother, not having a smartphone, is thus not tethered to email 24/7), the order was cancelled. By the time she found this out, it was too late to delay the appointment with the plumber, and the exact materials she wanted were no longer available.

“Why didn’t they call me?” my mother said.  Because, I figured, she hadn’t opted-out of the email notification.

To be clear: This isn’t about whether smartphones are bad, or texting is bad.  It’s about how we–individuals, businesses alike–now assume everyone has one, and uses it in this way.  For years, our 84-year old friend George has derided smartphone-addicted people–particularly at the dinner table–though he happily takes calls on his flip-phone at the table and otherwise chats away for hours on it.

Our neighbor Helen, 87, does not have a cell phone.  Neither does she have an answering machine.  She took the bus recently to Union Station to buy her annual cross-country train ticket.  (I’m not certain, but she probably paid cash.)

When Amtrak changed the departure time, they had just one way to contact her: landline. However, Helen wasn’t there, and there was no way to leave a message. You know what happened: Helen arrived for her big trip, but the train had departed.  Her entire trip, reliant on a matrix of perfectly timed connections, was derailed.  Had she had an answering machine, email or a smartphone, that wouldn’t likely have happened.  You might argue that she needs those tools, particularly since she lives alone.  She could afford them–not everyone can.

Aware of this demographic and their potential need for their service, Lyft is currently testing technology that allows senior citizens without a smartphone to dial in to a number that calls a car.   Should an elder have to buckle to keep up with the times, as a convenience for our ever-increasingly automated world?  It’s very easy for those of us who are younger and reliant on these tools to just say, cavalierly, “get with the 21st century.”  To be sure, it behooves many of us to adapt and change.  But it’s tone deaf to assume that everyone has the means or the inclination to do so.