Tuesday, August 05, 2008

Cell Phones

(News-Herald, July 31) It’s not very often that a piece of technology comes along that reshapes a culture. Certainly the automobile did. It’s not just that people could transport themselves farther and faster and at their own convenience. The car changed the shape of community.

For example, personal automobiles killed Monarch Park, a place where virtually every resident of Venangoland previously gathered on major holidays. After the rise of the automobile, people would never gather so completely as a community ever again.

There were more subtle effects. Automobiles gave rise to Rural Free Delivery, and that ate away at rural communities. There was a time when country folk had to travel to the post office (often a country store) to pick up the mail. That was why, even in rural farm territory, everybody knew everybody (and their business)—because everybody made regular trips to that central hub.

Businesses, roads, moving away—automobiles changed the way the culture defined much of itself. We haven’t seen a shift that massive in a long time, but I think we might be living through one now.

No, not computers or the internet— not directly. I nominate the cell phone.

Cell phones are more than simple conveniences, though they are certainly that. And they are more than a new way for the phone companies to just print money, though they certainly do that as well. The phone company can charge for both sending AND receiving a call, even as they manage a system that doesn’t depend on sixty gazillion miles of wires. The phone company can charge a big chunk of change if you want to leave them (phone company alimony), in addition to various extra charges for everything from Federal Mystery Voice-related Surcharge to Extra Percent Tacked On Just Because.

In all fairness to the phone company, I have no doubt that it takes a lot of money to maintain the largest, most complicated automated customer service denial system in the known universe. But I digress. None of this is culture-changing; it’s merely a great business plan (our own beloved Verizon reported a profit increase of 12% last quarter).

Just as the automobile completely changed our concept of the boundaries of our personal world, cell phones bring a new measure of mobility.

I can recall an evening thirty-some years ago when Joe, Bill and I decided it would be fun to go bowling, and even more fun to take real live female girls with us. Lacking regular girlfriends and personal transport for six, we began a convoluted process of calling girls, contacting Seneca Bowling Lanes, and negotiating with parental car-owning units. We three were parked at home, next to the phone, calling endlessly back and forth. I don’t remember anything about the actual bowling outing, just the process of trying to get it arranged (“Okay, I’ve got a lane and a girl. You? Okay, a car but no girl. Okay—call me back in five.” Rinse and repeat.)

Today, of course, that never happens. People can make plans on the fly. Nobody has to make plans or arrange meeting times. Sad teenaged girls will never again sit home waiting by the phone for him to call.

Since Bell said, “Watson, come here, I need you” into a funny black tube, home has not been where our hearts are or where they have to take us in. Home is where our phones are, and in the age of the cell phone, we’re always home, wherever we are, all the time.

Cell phones are also the warm fuzzy face of the internet. Parents who are terrified of letting their eight-year-old spend a single unsupervised second on line will blithely put a phone in that child’s hands.

Here’s what they need to understand. Everything you’re afraid your child might do on a computer—chat with scary people, trade inappropriate pictures and words, become electronically addicted, make plans that would make you graying hair curl—all that and more they can do on a phone as well, just as easily and with far more privacy. The internet does change things, but putting the internet in your pocket accelerates the revolution.

We watch computers carefully, because for those of us of a Certain Age, computers are New and Scary. But that little wireless phone, well, it’s just a phone, right? As Blackberries and I-phones are beginning to show us, no, they’re not. They’re net-enabled computer-driven multimedia platform doorways to the world. They are our new homes, the leading edge of the next big change.

No comments:

From my Flickr