The blizzard of gadgets I’ve had to shovel off my mental sidewalk this December also includes a new cell phone, motivated by the eminent death of my two year old one which has more miles logged with me on a bike than some Cat B racers rack up in a season, because my girlfriend uses it to text me so I tend to find myself phone-less, and also I will blame an email I got from AT&T telling me I could get it for free. Free being a word without which nothing can be sold, and which has thus been just a little degraded in meaning. Free used to mean you didn’t have to spend anything. In this case, I spent $150, because the new free phone requires a blue tooth headset and a different car charger. I remember when $150 was almost real money, but now I realize it is a small enough amount to be considered free.
My candy bar Nokia is what I would call a basic phone, and my brother calls “Rick you have a real job. Why don’t you get a decent phone… an iPhone or something”. Bare bones for Christmas 2009 means a phone which works in over 300 countries in the world, thanks to GSM (4 years ago just being digital was amazing) and 4 bands of radios built in, text messaging, a 1.4 MPixel camera with 3:1 zoom and a night vision mode sufficient for pretty good imaging of the moon, movie record and playback with sound, an earphone jack and USB port for uploading and playing MP3 music and books, an address book that holds something over 1000 entries, calendar, alarm clock, internet access on 3G for email, banking, googling things, instant messaging (in case plain old texting, the internet at 7Mbits/s and emailing aren’t enough connectivity) games (Tetris among them), 17 ring tones and 22 other alert tones. And who could live without at least the ability to download (a euphemism for purchase) more games, music, applications software and tones. With this barebones phone, you don’t have to take that risk.
It also can dial by voice, handheld or via its built in Bluetooth supporting both phone headsets and listening to music in stereo. Simultaneously. If you hold it up to the radio and hit a key, it tells you what song you are listening to (but don’t try that on a Chopin Nocturne) and of course with one more button you can purchase, oops I mean download, the song or just a ringtone version of the song, which for some reason costs more than the song. Did I mention it also comes with a half dozen different wallpapers for your customizable display, or you can change the display to a picture from its camera or any other graphic you download via Bluetooth or the USB port?
So like I said, a phone suitable for at least cave dwelling and other pre-agrarian societies. It makes me happy in other ways than just its ability to ring polyphonically imitating a phone my grandparents had sitting on a wooden table in a room people used to call the foyer. I figure my students all have phones 10 times this complex, so while they aren’t doing much in my classes, they are learning something somehow. The world is more complicated – our brains are thriving, even if our bodies aren’t. Thumbs excluded.
And since I was sort of a failure at Econ, it pleases me that economists actually think they can track prices from one year to another. 10 years ago having a cordless phone was for the majority of people, pretty connected. A cordless phone costed $100. or maybe $49 or maybe $19 on sale at radio shack when you bought two, the other one of which had an answering machine in it (let’s not get into what those were) (i.e. the $19 phone cost $100 – this was the beginning of the devaluation of “free”). Now I have this netbook disguised as a phone, ostensibly free with a 2 year extension of a contract I wanted to extend anyway. It costs me $69 per month, vs. $24.95 for my old landline, but that one had $16.50 in taxes added it to it for line fees and other things I never understood – just wrote checks for. But this one has free national long distance – and that 3G internet. Worth more than its predecessor Edge? How much more? And voicemail and texting.
None of which do I write checks for – it shows up on a credit card which I pay over the internet (I could do over the phone but haven’t figured out yet, plus the idea of using my phone to pay for my phone worries me for 2nd Law of Thermodynamics reasons). So excluding the labor involved in figuring out how to turn the thing on, the price of telephoning has gone… up…?
We used to worry that we would yield the ability to remember stuff, lazily storing it all, to our phones and Palm Pilots (remember those?). It turns out remembering how to find all that stuff you stored is enough of a challenge, let alone the stuff. But there remains a darker element stored inside the persona of my brushed aluminum and sleek black slab – lurking about in a file folder called Saved Items (don’t we all hope to end up there?). When I first turned my new phone on, I found it came with 11 of them, which are called Templates, by me… pre-fab texts. And what were these 11 messages, so common that every phone owner would find and supposedly use them, so vital that they are not deletable, ever, from your phone? The list starts with the just mildly depressing: “I can’t talk now, I’m in a meeting. Will call you back at “. There is the more general “I will call you back at “. Then there is the “I will arrive at “ and the always useful “meeting is cancelled “. Most of mine seem to be. I had hoped to find my favorite, adopted from a New Yorker cartoon “I’m dead, would you like my voice mail? “
Lurking at the bottom of the list was the one I did not want to find, and hope never, ever to receive. Still just the thought it is in that Top Eleven, that millions of Nokia phones, some owned by people I might today, or one day, care about… Beware if you ever receive it – never to know if it’s real or Memorex. It is those four little words, “I love you too”.