Thursday, April 4, 2013

Happy Birthday, Mobile Phone! (Have You Had Some Work Done?)

The mobile phone turns 40 today!

So announced the teaser for Melbourne's Nine News Now on channel Nine Digital this afternoon, perking up my ears more than any of the stories of murder and intrigue and Hillary Clinton's likely 2016 U.S. Presidential run that preceded it. The first thought that came to my mind: Boy, she looks great for her age (the mobile phone, not Hillary)!

And I thought I was sort of rocking my age. I had no idea that the mobile phone was nearly as old as I am. I've been around long enough to witness the evolution and near-extinction of the domestic land line, the mobile phone's precursor and, at one time, partner in long- and short-distance communication gadgetry, and I might be one of the last people to have one -- actually, two, one in my rental in Melbourne, another in my apartment in Buenos Aires. Like the mobile phone, I'm also old enough to remember when you were kind of cool and mysterious if you had an unlisted phone number. (Do people even use telephone books, or dial 411 anymore, now that directory assistance, even private numbers via Facebook profiles, is available online?)

Ah, those were the good old times, the days of wine and roses and dial phones, those unwieldy beasts that you couldn't use to call anyone without being heard by everyone in the house? Today they're a quaint relic of pre-historic times, closer to Alexander Graham Bell's original invention than the sleek smart phones in prevalent use today. Once you'd woken up every living thing in the vicinity, you had to wait for the person on the other end to pick up, or for one of two dreaded sounds: endless ringing (which nearly spelled doom for seven Americans during Argo's 1980-set climax) or a busy signal.

Beep beep beep beep beep... For years, it was one of the most frustrating sounds in the world.

Answering machines -- like mobile phones, apparently -- already had been invented, but most working-class families like ours didn't have one until the '80s, which was around the time (though later in the decade) that I first heard about mobile phones. They looked a lot like the slightly creaky cordless handsets of today, only twice as big. (According to the Nine News Now report, when the first call was made using one on 4 April, 1973, it was "the size of a brick.") I don't think I knew anyone who actually owned a mobile phone for regular communication until the late-'90s -- if you were a VIP, you either had a beeper or a "car phone" before that -- but within a few years, like computers and iPods -- they were de rigueur. You were living in the last century if when you reached out and touched someone in public you weren't doing it on a mobile phone. Pay phones especially were so 1900s.

Next to the computer, I can't think of anything that's revolutionized communication quite like mobile phones. It was probably only a matter of time before the two of them merged into one, though that's a technological leap that I resisted until this past January, when I finally upgraded from my tiny, tinny Nokia to my considerably "smart"-er Samsung Galaxy Y DUOS model, which can import phone numbers from the profiles of all my Facebook friends with the press of one key. My friend Marcus, who helped me pick out the Samsung that I eventually splurged on, was sure to let me know that as proud of myself as I was for finally embracing modernity, I wasn't completely caught up with the times just yet: "Everyone in Australia has an iPhone," he jokingly sniffed.

And I'm not sure whether to celebrate or curse. Yes, it's nice to be able to look up trivia online while you're out with friends, or update your Facebook status while watching strangers hook up at the bar (and do pretty much any of the everything that mobile phones now allow you to do, like tape telephone interviews without all of those doohickeys I always seemed to be misplacing in the '90s, and possibly save your own life, even if you aren't in as dire straits as Kim Basinger in Cellular, one of my all-time favorite guilty pleasures), but when you think about it, the mobile phone has caused nearly as much damage to the social scene as good.

Yes, mobile phones can save your life, but they can end it, too, if you insist on answering yours while driving, or if you're a distracted pedestrian who ambles out into oncoming traffic while texting. Sexting is fun and made possible by mobile phones, but now there are so many other ways to embarrass ourselves when we've had too much to drink than drunk dialing. After waking up one too many times at noon terrified to read my sent messages, I went through a brief phase during which I turned off my phone and hid it before going out at night.

There are other more benign disadvantages, too. Remember the good old days when you could go AWOL in peace, when you didn't have so many ways to be ignored by someone you wanted to hear from, when you didn't have to listen to one side of another person's conversation on public transportation, when you didn't have to worry about annoying ring tones zapping you back to reality in crowded movie theaters, when you could type on normal-sized keypads without being annoyed by predictive text, when you didn't have to deal with being interrupted mid sentence on dates by either or both of your ringing mobile phones and wonder if the other person would be rude enough to answer theirs, when you didn't have to sigh and roll your eyes while the one who claimed to only have eyes for you ignored you while texting God knows whom -- a casual friend, a relative, another lover?

Speaking of other lovers, pre-mobile phone, you were free to have one without worrying about suspicious significant others discovering your romantic misdeeds, no thanks to the mobile phone you happened to leave out in public view. Back then we had to catch cheaters the old-fashioned way, either through word of mouth or in flagrante delicto. Now being the last to know can be as simple as checking your partner's call history.

But I'll take the hits and risks of a future with the mobile phone (be it "smart" or dumb) because I shudder thinking about the alternative. Life and communication may have been simpler back in the '70s, but I wouldn't want to go back there. Because of the mobile phone, on its 40th birthday, I have something to write about, and no matter where you are -- be it at home, at work, on public transportation, at the wheel of your car, on a date, or in flagrante delicto -- you have the means to read it. Happy birthday, indeed!

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