Celling out

One of the advantages of being an old fart is that it gives you perspective on how things change over time. One of the disadvantages is that nobody wants you to share that perspective with them.

I can remember when cell phones first hit the consumer market, back when the phones weighed eleven pounds and you had to carry them and the associated cables around in a bowling bag. I realized that they might have some useful purpose, but I was not an early adopter. It wasn’t until the early 90’s, when cell phones had shrunk to manageable size (you could carry them in your pants pocket, provided you wore a strong belt), that I finally bit the bullet and purchased cell phones for me and my wife. Also, there was the rather unpleasant incident where my wife and I had to abandon my dead (brand-new) Plymouth Acclaim on the shoulder of I-290 near Thorndale and dash across four lanes of expressway traffic and a large expanse of brush to reach a hotel with a pay phone.

Of course, once you own a cell phone, you are enticed constantly to upgrade it. The technology improvements, along with shrewd promotional tactics by the cell providers, make it almost impossible to resist the new, cooler, more advanced devices. And when you do succumb, the cell companies are able to offer you a great deal on the new phones – if you lock in to a contract for another 12 or 24 months. So everybody’s happy. You get your shiny new toy, and your cell provider gets your monthly checks for the next year or two.

You’d think, being a gadget freak, that I’d be part of this constant upgrade cycle. Not true.

I’m old school. I’ve always believed that the only purpose of a cell phone is to make phone calls. The only technological advancement that interested me was that phones were shrinking in size, making them more convenient to carry around. Over a period of 15 years, I owned exactly three different phones. My second phone was a Motorola StarTAC flip phone, which I loved. It was small enough to carry in a shirt pocket, and did its one job (making phone calls) extremely well. I would still have it today except that it was an analog phone, and I was told that I needed to upgrade to a digital phone because they were going to shut down the analog network (which was a lie).

Most of the advances that encourage people to upgrade their phones have nothing to do with the actual task of making phone calls. Cell phones got as good as they’re going to get in terms of voice quality ten years ago. Modern cell phones do all sorts of stuff that was never intended in their original design. Yes, they still make phone calls, but I’d say that’s now fourth on their list of common uses. Here’s the top three:

1. Text messaging. This is now the primary method of social interaction for kids from 9 to 16, having almost completely replaced face-to-face conversation and talking on the phone. An entirely new language of terrible spelling and cryptic abbreviations has become the most commonly-used language in the United States, just beating out Spanish. Rather than sitting in coffeehouses and having thought-provoking conversations about politics and philosophy, today’s young people are reduced to leaning over keypads and using their thumbs to express profound sentiments such as “ur a dooshbag lol.”

2. Taking photos. Most cell phones now contain digital cameras, so that we can always have a camera available to document those fleeting but wonderful experiences that bring such joy to our lives. But mostly kids use them to take pictures of each other text messaging. The cameras are pretty crappy – you’re not going to use a cell phone to take pictures of anything important. “Hey, wanna see some vacation pictures? Here’s my family on our trip to Big Thumb. The blonde-colored blur on the right is my daughter Ashley – she’s looking down at her cell phone, sending a text message.”

3. Playing games. With their large, high-resolution color screens and powerful processors, many of today’s cell phones can give the Nintendo DS a run for its money. It’s sobering to realize that these tiny handheld devices contain as much computing power as the fastest desktops of five years ago, and how are we making use of these remarkable machines? By playing Tetris while waiting to receive our next incoherent text message.

Obviously, I have a rigid, narrow view of how a cell phone should be used. But that doesn’t mean I’m immune to the temptation. All of my cell phones have been Motorola flip phones, and I have lusted after the RAZR for some time. It’s simply the coolest, sexiest flip phone out there. But my old phone worked perfectly well, and try as I might, I just couldn’t justify coughing up the cash for a RAZR. As the price came down, the temptation got stronger and stronger, but I stuck to my guns. I even thought about deliberately breaking my phone so I’d have to upgrade. But I held out, showing a fortitude that surprised the people who know me best.

Then, a couple of weeks ago, I went to visit my mother in Des Moines. At one point, she said, “Oh, I have to show you something.” She reached for her purse and pulled out her new RAZR phone.

I nearly choked. My mother needed a RAZR like she needed a third nostril. This is a woman who doesn’t like to turn on her cell phone because it drains the battery. When we first bought her a laptop computer, she used it to crack walnuts.

I bought my RAZR last Thursday. Last night I downloaded a copy of Bejeweled and spent a few hours playing it on that gorgeous color screen. The phone came in a box that has a picture of four young people on the front, dancing around and waving their arms in the air. Their cell phone had made them so happy. After all, it’s not just about making phone calls anymore. It’s about being cool, and expressing yourself, and showing the world just who you are. And you know who you are. Ur a dooshbag.

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