When the blog posts and tweets started cresting last week celebrating the 40th anniversary of the cell phone, I didn’t know whether to sing a chorus of “Happy Birthday” or pitch my iPhone off the roof and then run it over with my car.
Cell phones have had that sort of affect on me almost from the start.
Though most writers were quick to offer the ritual top tens – worst handset, best handset – or the hoary foundational story of the first call from a Motorola Dyna-TAC (a brick-like appliance that made Maxwell Smart’s shoe phone look sleek) -from a Manhattan streetcorner in 1973, – few dug beneath the surface to examine the impact of the cellphone on our lives.
Though it can hardly be understated – cellphones, it could be reasonably argued, are the sina qua non of the modern world — that impact, I would suggest, is decidedly mixed. In truth, like Antony, I bury my cellphone much more often than I praise it.
It wasn’t always this way. Unlike many of my youthful classmates, I not only remember the early cell phones, but I carried one of the first models to make a commercial splash in the late ‘80s – the unbelievably ungainly Motorola Micro-TAC, which despite its optimistic nomenclature was about the size and weight of half a brick, available in any color as long as it was it was death-pallor-gray and with its whip antenna looked more like a walkie-talkie than the walkies it was replacing in the newsroom. When you loaded one of those babies into your inside breast pocket, it made your jacket sag so one-sidedly it looked like it had had a stroke.
But we loved them. Call anyone, anywhere, anytime. Reporters in the field. Wow. “Can you hear me now?” Your wife from the train. “I’m calling from a cellphone.” To repeat, wow.
Of course, that was before we realized that cellphones made you reachable at any time as well. Like while you were driving your car, formerly an inviolable oasis of solitude, or traveling, or in the grocery or during a hundred other formerly solitary activities that once defined daily life in the era of the landline. And once those boundaries of solitude were erased by the cellphone, it was only a matter of time until the appliance leveled the wall between work and play as well. Like the appliance to which they were increasingly tethered, workers were soon considered always on.
Thus, the era cell-phone serfdom had begun. And, remember, this was well before email, broadband, mobile internet access, text messaging and social media made the cellphone even more essential, not just a communications tool but the device through which we have, for better or worse, come to access much of our world. Need evidence of the cell’s centrality to our lives? Just watch the next time someone you know almost leaves the house without his or her cell phone but catches himself. You would think they had almost left the house without pants.
I don’t want to throw the baby out with the bathwater here. Much of what I do for a living, as well as much of what I do for pleasure, would be infinitely more difficult without a cell phone, and sometimes I even appreciate mine. But you’ll forgive me if I sit out the candles and the birthday cake.
But I do have a birthday present for you, my little cell phone. Come with me. It’s up on the roof.