Silly wankery time: cell phones, ain’t they great?

By Amanda Marcotte
Thursday, June 9, 2011 21:05 EDT
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I think it was probaby the combination of the Weiner non-scandal, which absolutely couldn't have happened without cell phones, and this Jonathan Franzen article about smartphones that got a surprising amount of attention, but for some reason I've been thinking on and off about how much the cell phone technology quietly remade people's lives in this country (and around the world, in surprisingly diverse ways), and at what a rapid speed, all things considered.  A couple of years ago, the hip and daring sector of the tech chattering world was all about how cell phones are just as important a development as computers—and maybe even more so—but now that smartphones have really taken off, that statement sounds more obvious than daring. Well, and unnecessary, since smartphones are collapsing the distinction between "phone" and "computer".  So, I thought I'd crowd source a post looking at all the ways that our daily lives have changed in response to this technology.  Many of the changes really snuck up on us, and it's only looking back that you really comprehend how easily personal habits shifted in response to the technology.  So I threw out the question on Twitter of what life pre- and post-widespread cell phone use looks like, and came up with a fun list.  We need a just-for-the-hell-of-it post around here; it's been awhile for some reason. 

*People don't wear watches very much anymore.  This goes double for people who came of age in the cell phone era; watch-wearing is now something primarily done by older people by force of habit.  I personally haven't owned a watch since college.  I got my first cell phone when I was, I think, 22.

*You no longer have to make elaborate plans to meet up with friends anymore.  Increasingly what people do is say they're going to be out at a certain day and time, and then when someone else is ready to meet them, they call them up and say, "Where are you?"  Since waiting on people is quite possibly my number one pet peeve, this shift in and of itself has made me a much happier person.

*A little over a decade ago, it was common for your average American to have at least half a dozen and usually more phone number memorized.  Before I had a cell phone, I could dial my mom, my boyfriend, four or five of my friends, my sister, and my office just from memory.  Now I often have to check even my boyfriend's number in my phone to make sure I'm writing it down properly on things like forms that require an emergency contact.

*One unique entry is someone noticed a huge decline in the amount of yelling in public people do.  She was specifically talking about people yelling from the street into houses instead of using doorbells (which, in our age of marvels still don't work a lot of the time), but as soon as she said it, I realized that this was a much broader advantage.  I remember when you would be out in public with your peeps, and if one of you wandered off, you had to yell for them to find them.  Now people just text message.  The amount of noise pollution has gone down because of this.  Something to think about next time you want to gripe about people talking on their phones in public.

*People don't hand draw maps anymore. 

*Trying to find a fucking phone booth.  I actually had to do this in England a couple of years ago, and the thought of it sent me into a mild panic.  Luckily, for some reason, they actually still have phone booths in the East End of London.

*Picking people up at the airport has drastically changed.  Back in the dark ages, you either had to show up at the airport at the appointed hour and hope the flight wasn't late, or call the airport ahead of time to make sure.  Now what I do—and I think this is common—is either call my ride when my plane lands or have the person I'm picking up (or whatever) call when their plane lands. 

*I've written about this before, but have a few more thoughts: plotting in TV and movies.  A surprising amount of plots move forward because characters lack crucial information, and unfortunately in many cases this becomes a lazy crutch.  (I love Harry Potter, but JK Rowling relies on the trick of having the adults keep important information from the kids way too much, and after awhile, it becomes grating. These kids have beaten back monsters and have seen war.  You can treat them as mature beings capable of handing it.)  But in our world, you can often find out what you need to know in seconds, because the person who has the information you require has a phone on them and can be reached at any time.  For awhile, screenwriters tried to get around this problem in really ham-fisted ways: no cell phone service in an area, the person didn't hear their phone ringing, etc.  That still goes on, but less than it used to.  I'm seeing a lot less reliance on plots that move forward because the main character is ignorant of something they really need to know, or can't get help when they're in danger.  Though I do think they did the "answer your phone" trick in "Thor", which is the "in the distance, a dog barked" of our time. (A classic in the genre of "shows that wouldn't work with cell phones.")

*I hear in high schools, kids don't pass notes in class anymore.  They text message. 

*When was the last time you called someone on their office phone for a personal call?  I literally think it's been years; I don't have a single office number for a single friend or family member.  Concerns about tying up office phones have basically fallen away.  That said, when I'm speaking to someone for work-related reasons on their office phone, they often get interrupted by their cell phone. 

*I saw a guy checking IDs in a bar using his iPhone for a flashlight.  In fact, you see it put to this use a lot.  I have to wonder if the number of minor accidents due to toe-stubbing in dark places has gone down. Of course, the number of accidents because people are walking and looking at shit on their phone  has gone up, so it's probably a net loss there. 

*I frequently find myself wondering how the hell I would have made it in New York City without an iPhone.  I never have to wonder where the subway stop is, or how to get from point A to B.  I just look it up on my phone.  I'm actually mildly worried about this as a crutch and have been consciously trying to avoid using it to get around as much as possible. Trying, basically, to relearn how to navigate a city without digital assistance.  I'm old enough that I've had to do so in the past, but my memories on how to do so are surprisingly faded. 

*I really love the new social habit of seeing something awesome, taking a picture of it, and texting it to someone out of the blue.  It's interesting to me how quickly that took off as a thing people do, and I've never seen anyone comment on it.  But many a person's day is made a little more uplifting because their phone beeps and they're immediately rewarded with a picture of a cat doing something cute or some really awesome graffiti. 

*The art of romance has been completely changed by smartphones, it appears. And not just because you can use it to send people pictures of your junk. 

*As someone who likes to go to rock shows, I can tell you text messaging may be the most fucking awesome technology ever.  I still remember vividly the dark days when someone would call to find out where in the club you were and you had to haul your ass outside to take the call, defeating the purpose.  And the even darker days before that, when you could agree to meet someone some place and spend an hour trying to figure out where they fuck they were because neither of you had a way to communicate with the other. 

*The strangest and least predictable change, in my mind,  is that cell phones have actually ushered in a new era of people spending way less time on the phone than they used to.  Long phone calls are just not as common as they used to be.  I rarely pick up the phone and just call someone to chat, except like my mom.  Text messaging is part of that.  It's helped reduce the amount of pressure on people to make idle chit chat out of politeness.  I think it's also email and IM on computers, as well.  But part of it might just be that because you can get someone on the phone whenever you want, it makes the conversations you do have less of a big deal.  And so you put less effort into them.  If you have something else you need to tell them, you can always call them back without worrying that they won't be home. 

*With that in mind, I have to point out that people leave phone messages way less than they used to.  They still do, but not only are you likelier to get a hold of someone if you call them, but if you don't, it's usually easier to text. 

This is by no means an exhaustive list, but like I said, I'm crowd-sourcing this one.  What are some of the changes, big and small, that have crept up on you because of cell phones?

Amanda Marcotte
Amanda Marcotte
Amanda Marcotte is a freelance journalist born and bred in Texas, but now living in the writer reserve of Brooklyn. She focuses on feminism, national politics, and pop culture, with the order shifting depending on her mood and the state of the nation.
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