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Front Page - Friday, July 5, 2019

When does a phone stop being a phone?

My phone has suddenly, annoyingly decided that it will no longer make or accept calls.

It’s still “smart,” in the sense that it continues to do many things that would have seemed magical not so very long ago.

For instance, in one of my favorite functions, I can let it “listen” to any song coming over the radio and quickly resolve the mystery of the song name and performing artist.

“What Light,” it told me just recently. “Wilco.” Other times: “‘Change.’ Mavis Staples.” “‘Cure for Pain.’ Morphine.” (Lightning 100 fans here.)

I love it. No more racking my brain wondering whether that was Crosby, Stills & Nash or Seals and Crofts? The app is called Shazam, which is pretty much what I feel like exclaiming, Gomer-like, every time it solves the riddle.

But if I try to answer an incoming call, silence. If I try to make a call, silence.

It goes without saying (though I’m about to say it) that it takes terrific pictures. And it lets me share them almost instantly to the world at large (Facebook and Twitter) or selected friends.

“Look at me! I’m at Yankee Stadium!”

I can also summon a ride that will convey me from wherever I am to wherever I want to be. Pretty much. I suspect that function may not perform well in, say, the Australian Outback, but then I have no plans to ever be in an Outback, other than to eat a blooming onion. So who cares.

Because of an app that a friend installed, I can also unlock and relock his condo door, should I ever need entry in his absence, or should he need entry in the event of his own phone failure.

It’s just that I can’t call and speak to him. Or anyone else.

True, I could text. That still works, the modern equivalent of a personal telegraph machine, without having to learn Morse code. And texting certainly has its benefits, such as allowing the recipient to respond at his/her convenience. But I’m a one-thumb, stumbling typist, rendering texting too tedious for extended conversation.

Speaking of conversation, I can use my phone to record an interview with another person and then – here’s more magic – provide a transcript of everything said. It’s not a perfect transcript. It makes the same kind of laughable mistakes, in fact, that closed-captioning can on TV. But it sure beats taking notes by hand, which is even more susceptible to error.

I can also discover the weather I am about to experience here. I can discover the weather my friends in Balloch, Scotland, are about to experience, or my former neighbors on Long Island. I just get curious sometimes.

And I can determine the closest restaurants, Irish bars, cat hospitals, bookstores, you name it. It will tell me how long it would take to walk, drive, bicycle or, apparently, hitchhike to any of them.

Calling any one of them is out.

Because Google is still working, I have petitioned it for advice on how to address the issue. The initial suggestions were quite easy to follow.

And totally ineffective.

I’ve been reluctant to dive much deeper into the remedies, which seem to include dumping every app I’ve added and thus erasing the device’s claim to smart status. But maybe things will come to that.

Meanwhile, having abandoned its primary function, it’s already lost its claim to be a phone.

Joe Rogers is a former writer for The Tennessean and editor for The New York Times. He is retired and living in Nashville.