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LBJ’s Poolside Phone and the Connectivity Revolution

A reader named Peter recently sent me a perceptive note. He had just returned from a visit to Austin, where he had visited the LBJ Ranch, now operated as national historical site, located about 50 miles west of the city in the Texas Hill Country.

As Peter recalled, during the tour, the guide emphasized that as president, Lyndon Johnson was so obsessed with connectivity that he had a telephone installed beside his pool. “Everyone in the tour group laughed,” wrote Peter. But as he then correctly pointed out, this collective mirth may have been hasty.

In an age of smartphones, everyone has access to a phone by the pool. Also in the bathroom. And in the car. And in every store, and on every street, and basically every waking moment of their lives. The average teenager with a iPhone today is vastly more connected than the leader of the free world sixty years ago.

I thought this was a good reminder of the head-spinning speed with which the connectivity revolution entangled us in its whirlwind advance. We haven’t even begun to seriously consider the impact of these changes, or how us comparably slow-adapting humans must now adjust. Be wary of those who embrace our current moment as an optimal and natural evolution of our species’ relationship with technology. We still have a lot of work ahead of us to figure out what exactly we want. After sufficient reflection, it might even turn out that taking a call by the pool, LBJ style, isn’t as essential as we might have once imagined.

11 thoughts on “LBJ’s Poolside Phone and the Connectivity Revolution”

  1. We are connected.
    But not connecting
    I was done with the smartphone when I found an app to run on it to
    help improve ones” presence”.
    That’s like claiming quitting drinking because you dilute your vodka with water.

  2. I work in the field of telecommunications. I seem that the business and sales side of things often state that ubiquitous communications are highly desirable; that people want to be connected everywhere and all the time. As a result, companies have been pushing to extend communications: to airplanes, to the deep oceans, to the mountains and remote regions of the Earth. Technologies like Starlink will soon ensure that nowhere on Earth will be out of reach for modern communications. There are even plans to do the same to the Moon!

    That means the default mode has switched from being disconnected to being permanently connected, as you rightly point out here. I agree that the implications of this have been barely considered, and few people have pushed back against the idea that it is highly desirable. But I also wonder if society will ever really question this. Rolling back the tide will be hard to do. The enabling technologies – like Starlink – look unlikely to go away anytime soon, no matter how much damage they do.

    • The damage that omnipresent connectivity might cause can be labelled as a ‘first world problem’. For the rest of the developing world, omnipresent connectivity would improve the quality of life for the average person that has no access to basic amenities.

      So, despite being onboard with all of Cal’s ideas, I’d still root for projects like Starlink. The problem isn’t the underlying infrastructure. It’s all the shiny manipulative applications that get built on top.

  3. Note, also, the expression on Lady Bird’s face. I believe that is the same expression my wife gives me when I am responding to work e-mails when we are up in the Adirondacks…

  4. I smiled as I coincidentally looked into getting a Nokia offline phone today just thirty minutes earlier before this article being published. Though I long for a slower, more meaningful life, it’s hard getting rid of a smartphone entirely. All these bright colored apps and the speed of use. On the other hand, what’s there to loose? I might just take calls more often or even commit to calling a good friend more frequently.

    • It won’t happen overnight. As Cal says, delete all the interesting stuff that drain your time from your smartphone. Restrict social media and stuff you can do in your browser, to your browser. Use your PC to do all other tasks. Your computer can do almost everything your smartphone can but better. Over time you’ll get used to it and then you can consider getting a dumb phone and not deal with this struggle. It worked for me. Hope it works for you. Good luck.

  5. Cal, I listened to your pontification on the podcast industry. But would you give practical advice on how to make a podcast? How much time/investment do you need to make a really good podcast like “Deep Questions”? If you have something written about it or an episode of your podcast with that advice, would you share it here?Thank you!

  6. Cal- did not want to be buried in old posts but on a connectivity note recall your 3/27/2019 column on the Arizona Cardinals allowing people to keep phones during meetings. Fast forward to now, and their flagship quarterback with a massive contract has to have a written contract clause mandating a minimum of 4hrs of film review (per week, I think). As this first commenter said in a Sherry Turkle-ish echoing comment: We are connected but less connecting…and evidently that includes the playbook:).

  7. I am trying to avoid paper and to have completely digital workload, but it is not being an easy task, due to the fact that I am always connected.
    Do you think is even possible or advisable to abandon paper?

  8. Great commentary as always, Cal. Speaking of LBJ, it’s promising to see that governments around the world are beginning to take notice of the problem with an “always-on” society and introducing “right to disconnect” laws. I don’t think this will be a solution to the problem however. I think the solution will require businesses, governments, and individuals to explore more innovative solutions and new kinds of workflows. I wrote about my thoughts on this topic here (relying heavily on your writing and research):


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