A couple decades ago a phone’s sole purpose in life was to allow one person to talk with another. The hardest part of operating the thing was to know the number you needed to call. Dial it wrong? Hang up and try again. No answer? Hang up and call back later. Hanging up on a mistake can be therapeutic, a practice we should return to embracing. There was beauty in the phone’s simplicity, an elegance.
Now we’ve tortured and twisted the device till todays smart phones are the Swiss-Army knife of telecom. I’m not talking about buttons replacing rotary. Whoever invented that deserves the Congressional Medal of Honor. No, I’m talking about when Satan invented voicemail. And don’t think he wasn’t the one. He slithered into the basement of one of the Baby Bells, stalked up to a Coke-bottle eye-glassed engineer, just like he did Eve in the Garden of Eden.
“Did God really say, ‘Thou shalt not invent voicemail?’” he hissed. “Surely not. Dump your problem onto someone else’s shoulders when they don’t take your call.” He held up a phone and plugged it into a tape recorder. The engineer’s eyes dilated and drool ran from his lips like a Saint Bernard in summer.
Now, we live under the phone curse. No more phone euphoria. No longer is it a tool we use, but a task-master whipping us till we’re distracted to unproductivity.
Phone companies justify new features as time saving, cost-cutting, and convenient. And over time the curse upgraded, enlarged, and enhanced the once proud telephone till it no longer resembles its humble beginnings in form or function. And we all know a Swiss-Army knife does a lot of things, just none of them well.
We hadn’t even figured out how to leave a proper voicemail before they added caller ID and call waiting and call everything else till now all of NASA is run from some geek’s smartphone out of his apartment over his parent’s garage.
Lest you get the wrong impression, I am not a technophobe, stilted in hoary ways. But there exists a vast difference between being busy and being productive. Nevertheless, watching my friends check email on-the-go and snapping pictures without having to haul around a camera, I recently decided to trade in my dumb flip-phone for a smart one.
It was heart-rending.
The little flipper stared up at me with its dull, scratched plastic screen the size of a postage stamp. “You don’t want me anymore?”
“It’s not that,” I said. “They told me I can trade you in and you’ll be able to help wounded soldiers, or cure breast cancer, or something noble like that.”
“Did I drop calls? Didn’t I keep working after you dunked me in the toilet? Even before you flushed?”
“No. It’s not that. You make great calls. And I love how you only need a charge once a week.”
There was no way to cushion the blow. “There’s a new model out that –”
Its vibrator shook. “An affair? You’ve been looking at other phones? I can do anything she can do!”
No matter how this played this out, it wasn’t going to end well. So I gently lay it into the palm of the Verizon man standing behind a shiny grey-black counter. He glanced down, ripped out the battery and dropped the tiny phone into a steel trash can, then walked to a display case of shiny new mobile devices as big as flat screen TVs.
“I’m not looking for a tablet,” I said.
He shook his oversize cranium. “These aren’t tablets. It’s the newest smart phone. We sell more of this model than any other.”
I held it to my ear. My eyes constricted at the bright screen, warm against my cheek. “I feel like I’m talking on a tanning bed.”
I shook my head walking past another contemporary display of over-sized gadgets. “I want my phone small. Easy to fit in my pocket.” My neck chilled as I tried to picture how the geeks wearing skinny jeans could carry such a large phablet without looking… odd.
A small oblong display stood against a red wall. The two phones it held were thin and small. An iPhone. That’s the one I went with.
As the Verizon guy got it ready for me, he asked me if I wanted insurance.
“For what?” I asked.
I went cross-eyed. This may surprise some readers, but being an author doesn’t pay much. I actually make a living in the insurance industry. Come to think about it, that doesn’t pay much either. But the point is that I insure a lot of stuff – cars, houses, factories – everything. What sane person would insure a phone? Earlier I’d heard a customer wandering around the displays, complaining how their phone insurance hadn’t paid for anything, so I politely declined.
“What about a screen protector?” he asked. “If it ever gets scratched, just come by and we’ll replace it.”
The convenience sounded good, so I accepted. After he started getting it ready I thought to ask about price.
“Twenty-five dollars,” he said without as much as a chuckle. He could have at least given me the courtesy of a good laugh. What idiot would pay $25 to have a piece of thick Saran Wrap stuck to their phone screen?
I still can’t figure it out, but I think it had something to do with the phone curse. I couldn’t leave the store without being price-gouged.
Just days after buying my smart phone, I now understand why everyone walks around thumbing the things till their fingernails fall off, unaware of the gorgeous splendor all around them. No, those folks aren’t texting. They’re caught in the phone curse, trying to keep their phones from crashing, frantically straining to figure out why Facebook just hijacked all their contacts, and why there’re now four of everybody, or how to set up email so it doesn’t download all eighty-four gigabytes of old mail.
Walking by my daughter’s room I glimpsed a shiny beige antique phone she has for decoration atop her nightstand. Its curves and chrome rings are artistic, beautiful. I plugged it into the wall and got a dial tone. Simplicity, still functioning. I pulled out my flat Swiss Army “smart” phone and shrugged, pulled by desire to check messages, my social network, tomorrow’s weather. Busy verses productive. I laughed, then powered it down. Bet no one ever even considered insuring that old rotary.