Family Form Follows Function

Old school: a leather-bound address book with handwritten entries, by family, alphabetically arranged.  Updated each year to reflect changes in marital status, births, deaths, moves.

The new normal: iPhone entries for each person, reflecting only that individual person’s email address, cell phone number and — rarely — a street address.

What does the format of an iPhone’s Contact section do, in and of itself, to affect how we think about people? It’s my contention that it’s a significant mind-shaper, though often a subliminal one.

Whereas I used to think of the proverbial Smith family as a unit and send them mail accordingly, I now think of Mary Smith as a social unit and John Smith as a social unit, and I decide whether to invite them or greet them together or separately. The spouse is relegated to a “plus one” status if mentioned at all.

It used to be unthinkable in some circles to send formal mail (engraved wedding invitations) without including the recipient’s middle name. People would actually track it down by telephone when addressing envelopes, often in beautiful calligraphy. Now it’s unthinkable to send formal mail using ink and paper when an Evite will do.

And there used to be only house phones of course. And — gasp! — someone had to get up, cross the room, answer, be polite, and then go look for whomever the call was for, perhaps tracking them down in the yard or the shower, and then return to the phone, and say, “She’ll be right with you,” or “May I take a message?” all in the nicest tone (even if said caller interrupted The Beverly Hillbillies).

Now, of course, I don’t have to mess with your calls, and you don’t have to answer mine. We don’t even have to be bothered with knowing who else someone lives with. It’s all private.

So some people bemoan the transition from community life to an over-emphasis on the nuclear family (at the expense of a sense of connectedness). I’m taking it a step further and bemoaning the transition from nuclear family to the individual as the unit of society.

More than at any time in recorded history, people are living alone (I doubt cave men did either). And more than ever we are isolated not just in our homes but in our own rooms or behind our private screens. And it hasn’t made anybody feel more loved or more known or more engaged.

But it sure is convenient, being able to store all these numbers, keep each entry separate, and have it all at the tip of our calloused fingers and carpal-tunnel-stricken wrists.

But at what cost?

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