Fifty years ago, a device that would eventually end the reign of the cellphone was revealed to the public. It was called "the cellphone."
Let me explain. In April 1973, a man named Martin Cooper placed the first public cellphone call, standing on a street in New York. People may have been amused by the sight of a man talking into a beige plastic brick.
Whom did he call? Why, the man in another company who was leading the development of the cellphone. Which means that the first call from a cellphone was unwanted and annoying. Quite the karmic set-up.
Motorola beat AT&T to the market. The device they showed off in 1973 was approved by the FCC in 1983, when it sold for the equivalent of $12,000 in today's dollars. It was instantly adopted by rich people in big cities, who wanted to walk around shouting Business Things into the ether and did not want to touch public phones, all of which probably had plague.
Its impact on ordinary people was insignificant. We were more interested in the answering machine, which served two vital functions:
It deprived people of the ability to lie about missing your call. And it reminded you that you were unpopular. You came back from work at the end of the day, you saw the light wasn't blinking, and the digital voice might as well have said: "Hello. You have no friends. You are alone in an uncaring world, speeding toward the void with ever-increasing velocity."
If you had a really good unit, you could call your answering machine from somewhere else to learn that no one had called you, intensifying your loneliness. It really was an age of wonders!
Eventually, we all got cellphones. And the era of the big, heavy phone attached to the wall, with its aftermarket 12-foot beige cord impossibly tangled into a broken fugue of curlicue knots, passed, lamented by no one.
Kids today don't know what it was like to move into a new apartment and not have a phone. Sometimes you had to go downtown to get one, and you felt as if you were petitioning the Wizard of Oz for a favor. Even then, you didn't own it.
But it had great power. In those days, when the phone rang, you stopped whatever you were doing and answered. It was part of the social compact.
The idea of just letting it ring — well, what sort of psychopath does that? The neighbors might send the cops for a wellness check. "Is there a strange odor coming from the house?" "No, but they let the phone ring and ring. They must be dead."
You also could slam down the receiver with a great, satisfying act of socially sanctioned violence. Just about everything else was taboo — punching a wall, for instance, or throwing a plate across the room. But everyone was allowed to slam down that indestructible handset as hard as possible, preferably making the bell inside echo your fury with a sympathetic ding.
Now? We push the little red button that has a picture of a handset, an act that vents no steam and sends no message. But that assumes you were talking to someone on your cell in the first place. When I said that the cellphone killed the cellphone, I meant that the generation that grew up able to make calls anywhere eventually decided they didn't want to make calls at all.
It's so invasive, like sticking a wetted finger in someone's ear. It's so presumptuous. So unnervingly intimate. Just because you want to talk to someone doesn't mean they want to talk to you. It's easier to text, and no one has to say goodbye.
In my youth we waited until after 11 p.m. on Sunday to make a long-distance call, because every minute felt like we were setting money on fire; now, thanks to the evolution of the portable phone, you can call another country at noon on WhatsApp for free. But it doesn't matter, because young people don't call anymore.
Oh, sure, we still have our pinstripe public popinjays who strut along talking to invisible interlocutors, jabbering away about this or that. The young are still obliged to call their parents, who are sitting up trimming the wick on whale-blubber lamps so they can watch some stereoscopic slides later on. But they do not call each other.
This could change. The particular parameters of the future are difficult to predict. I can imagine talking to my young Star Trek enthusiast self, saying: "In 2023, you'll have ..."
"A ticket to the moon base on a Pan Am rocket, with a stop at the space station for Howard Johnson ice cream?"
"No. You'll have a watch that can take phone calls, but you'll ignore most of them, because the watch will say 'Spam warning.'"
"Why? Is there a problem with spoiled rectangular meat?"
"Never mind. You'll figure it out."
email@example.com • 612-673-7858 • Twitter: @Lileks • facebook.com/james.lileks