So, I was going to call this “The Social History of the Cell Phone”, but decided that the title above was catchier and would grab more eyeballs. But I’m going to start with the social history of the cell phone anyway, and you can see how we get to the end.
The history of the cell phone goes back to the 1970s, when it was invented by Motorola, right? Not actually – the idea of mobility with a phone goes back much earlier. Certainly it appeared in science fiction and the comics (Dick Tracy wrist radio, anyone?), but in the 1954 film “Sabrina”, starring Humphrey Bogart, Audrey Hepburn, and William Holden, Bogart’s character uses a radio which links into the phone network while he’s being driven to the office. So even as far back as that we have the image of mobile communication being the province of the extremely rich.
Also the extremely busy: couldn’t he just wait until he got to the office to give all those instructions to his secretary?
Car phones became more common in 1980s, but still with the trademark of the high-powered executive (or the drug dealer – see “Running Scared”, 1986, starring Billy Crystal, Gregory Hines, and Jimmy Smits). The funny thing then was that the phones needed power from the car, so you’d get executives sitting in parking lots at their destination, but they had to keep the car running so they could finish the call.
With the development of battery technology, phones got cheaper and smaller, so the relative power of the executives armed with cell phones gradually lessened. I remember being out of town and being the only showing up for a meeting without a cell phone – the others were wondering where I was and were surprised I didn’t have one. Me, I was thinking, “I just don’t need to be that connected all the time.”
Eventually, somewhere near the late 1990s, we hit the point where just about anyone could afford a cell phone, but they were still considered luxury items. Anyone remember doing a caravan road trip and using walkie talkies to talk to people in the other car about where to stop?
In the 2000s, two critical things happened together. First, there was 9/11. Overnight, cell phones went from a luxury / convenience item to a security necessity. You had to have a phone, and you had to have it with you all the time. Schools used to prohibit kids from bringing pagers or phones, partly because of the distractions but also because of the lingering association with the retail illegal drug industry, but these bans evaporated now. We all needed to be able to reach anyone, at any time.
The cultural casualties of this era included the car phone and the personal digital assistant (or PDA, which was now completely overtaken by the phone itself). We also stopped remembering phone numbers. Rolodexes and day timers began to vanish also, although this was also due to the internet: many business phone numbers simply needed to be looked up online, and many communications were now done via email rather than phone.
Oh, yes, the phone book also started to decline in value at this point. I got to the point where I just recycled mine as soon it as showed up. However, something happened that led me to keep at least one of them around. Some years ago I came home one day to find myself besieged by helpful neighbors telling me that there was a cable hanging off my house. A cable (which turned out to be the phone line) had come loose from where it was attached to the wall of my house, and now it was sagging across the alley and blocking traffic. I called the non-emergency police number, but got a fire truck showing up instead. The firefighters got the cable temporarily out of the way (this made sense because it could have been a power line) and suggested that I call the phone company to get the cable properly taken care of.
So I went to look for a number for the phone company. Online, everything for contacting AT&T wanted me to enter my home phone number or customer number, but – having cancelled our home phone service – I had neither. The value of the phone book, it turns out, is that it’s the only place you can find the number of the phone company! Somewhere deep in the AT&T’s website I managed to find a real phone number, and they sent somebody out to fix things, even though I wasn’t even their customer anymore, so that all ended well. But now I keep a phone directory just in case.
Next, now that everyone was carrying a phone, just having the phone wasn’t cool enough Now we had to be able to personalize the phone. Having a cooler phone was good, and having a colorful protective case was almost as good. Having the newest, most powerful phone was the best. Several cell phone companies broke up on the rocks of believing that one popular phone model meant that they had a great brand. Not so fast, Nokia and Motorola! You had one cool model, but now the next hip thing was out there. And it wasn’t yours. Apple, leveraging the hipness factor of the Mac, became the first company to really leverage their phone into being a lifestyle accessory.
Then, since we were all carrying phones around all the time, what was the point of having a home phone? It didn’t follow us around, and it was inconveniently listed in phone book and accessible to autodialers for telemarketers. You may not know that it’s still technically illegal for telemarketers to call your cell phone. This came about because, back when we got charged for cell minutes even when you answered a call, Congress concluded that it was unfair to charge people for getting annoying calls. It doesn’t stop all the telemarketers nowadays, but it probably helps. Anyhow, a lot of us started cutting the cord and getting rid of our home phones.
The next cultural step in cell phones was the smart phone. The typical person is now carrying around in their pocket or purse more computing power than it took to get men to the moon or fly the space shuttle.
“With great power comes great responsibility,” according to Spider-man. Huh. Not when it comes to smart phones. What do we do with all that power? We play Words with Friends, watch cat videos, and take pictures of ourselves (just in case we should forget what we looked like).
The biggest thing we use our smart phones for is social media. Where are we, what are we doing, what do we like, and what’s on our mind right now.
I’ve got an old science fiction book by Jessica Amanda Salmonson called A Silver Thread of Madness (1989). It’s a collection of short stories, and in one of the stories a young woman stays up late to watch old movies on television a lot. Her father was an actor in B-movies, and now that he has passed away, she watches the movies to see him again.
“Is there a heaven for people who weren’t in the movies?” she asks.
So connecting that to social media: have you ever gone to Google and done a search on an old friend, wondering where they were and if you could reconnect? And then you didn’t find anything – nothing at all – and you wondered what happened to them. No Facebook page, no LinkedIn account, no reviews on Amazon, nothing. Are they still alive? Ever wonder if it’s even possible to be alive today and be invisible on social media?
Is there life for people not on social media?
But that’s not the end of the social history of the cell phone. Anyone remember Tamagotchis? Yeah, I see you – put your hand down, you’re just pretending.
Tamagotchis were small electronic games invented in Japan in 1996. The idea was that they contained a small alien critter, and that by pressing various buttons on the game you fed, trained, and cared for your alien. The more attention you gave it, the healthier it was. If you ignored it long enough, it died (you didn’t have to buy a new one, though, you just had to reset it to start over). This became a huge craze in Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan, and something of a fad in the US.
You know what? Cell phones have become the Tamagotchi of our current decade. Only, I suspect that the situation has become subtly reversed. I think now it’s people who will wither away without the constant presence of their phone, the white noise of social media, and the encapsulation of their life and knowledge in a pocket-sized device.
Think about that when you see someone take their cell phone into the bathroom. Come on – you couldn’t go to the bathroom without having your phone?
So, asking the question again, but with a twist:
Is there life for people not on social media?