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What Has Become Of The Phone?

— A week ago one of my workmates told me an amusing story about not being able to find her cell phone. Ruxandra Guidi said she called her husband to tell him about her “lost” phone when she realized it was pressed against her ear.

The dial phone that rings like a school bell next to the author's bed
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Above: The dial phone that rings like a school bell next to the author's bed

At first I thought this was a common space-out, sort of like not being able to find your sunglasses when you suddenly realize they are perched on top of your head. But there was something else going on here. Rux didn’t consider her phone to be a thing she used to call people. To her, it was for searching the web, sending texts and emails.

So when she was using it as a phone she lost track of it and wondered where it had gone.

When I grew up, the telephone was used for only one thing: Talking to someone who wasn’t in the house. I remember an old TV ad for AT&T starring Andy Griffith, where he told viewers they wanted a phone that worked “just like this.” He said this as he smiled and lifted a telephone handset that sang out in a loud, clear dial tone that would transmit voices that were just as steady and comforting.

In the old days of analog telephones you would dial the number and hear someone pick up, which was then followed by a faint-sounding bustle as your intended party was summoned from some other part of the house. Once that person was on the phone you had a long, animated conversation that tied up the line.

Today we don’t waste so much time chatting because our phones are like Swiss Army Knives. They can do pretty much anything, though they don’t normally give you that unwavering, high-fidelity connection that Andy Griffith promised AT&T customers.

I know some people have developed strong feelings for their phones. Barack Obama’s attachment to his BlackBerry was big news. Another workmate of mine, Peggy Pico, says she would marry her phone if she could. Let’s just keep in mind that red flags have been hoisted anew over cell phone radiation, so having an intimate relationship with your phone might not be wise.

Me? I still keep an old dial telephone at my house. This has been true as long as I’ve been married because my wife thinks old phones are cool.

A dozen years ago, Karen (my wife) and I moved into a house in Normal Heights with the help of a local moving company. One of the guys on the moving crew asked to use a phone and Karen pointed him to the only phone we’d installed so far… the dial phone.

This guy, who was in his 20’s, stopped in his tracks and gazed at the phone for a moment. It was as if he’d asked for a drink of water and my wife had pointed to a well in the back yard where he had to spend a minute jerking on a pump handle. But in the end, the guy picked up the handset and began to twirl the circular dial. He wanted to talk to somebody, so what else could he do?

Comments

Avatar for user 'Greg Duch'

Greg Duch | December 13, 2010 at 6:39 p.m. ― 3 years, 10 months ago

Tom:
Back in the old days, they used to install items on the streets of most major cities. They were called telephone booths. The purpose was to provide a semi-private space on public streets in which to carry on phone conversations, without others becoming privy to your end of the phone conversation.
Fast-forward to the cell phone. It seems some folks wish to share their most personal info by carrying out intimate cell phone conversations in public places,-- airport, stores, buses, trolleys, etc. Telegraphing the quotidien events of one's life to all within earshot of one's cell phone conversation is a phenomenon I do not comprehend.
AND--with the speaker setting on, one is privileged to hear both sides of personal cell phone conversations. Perhaps it is an expression of personal narcissism. The public broadcast of one's important personal daily news to as much of the world as possible confirms one's own sense of self-importance. Oh for the good old days of phone booths!

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Avatar for user 'Tom Fudge'

Tom Fudge, KPBS Staff | December 13, 2010 at 9:10 p.m. ― 3 years, 10 months ago

I can't quite tell where the whole cell-phone/Twitter&Facebook culture comes from or where it's headed. Maybe it is narcissism, in which we all assume we're special and whatever's on our minds is of interest to others. Maybe it's an awareness that new communication technology has made privacy obsolete... or at least unattainable. Maybe it's the fact that large homes, big-screen TVs and one-car-per-driver have made us so used to being solitary that we simple don't notice when other people are actually around. I just hope the ban on cell phones in airplanes continues. If not, 9-11 will happen again and it won't be caused by Muslim fundamentalism..

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