Technology. It’s a marvelous, marvelous thing. I’m reminded of this upon the occasion of purchasing a new laptop computer. How have so many things changed over such a relatively short time span?
Take phones, for instance.
I can still remember dial telephones; the curly cords that allowed you to go about ten feet from the phone hanging on the wall. Invariably, they would get twisted beyond repair. It wasn’t a sad day when those went away, giving way to (can you imagine??) cordless telephones. Yes, indeed, no longer were you tethered to the wall in the kitchen. Now you could walk about freely, so long as you stayed in the kitchen. See, those early cordless phones didn’t work too well when the signal had to pass through a wall. These, or course, were replaced with different models, with different features, to the point where now you can walk down the block with a cordless phone and not lose an iota of signal quality.
How about answering machines? In days of yore, if someone wasn’t home if you called them, the phone just rang. Forever. I remember an Ann Landers column in the Long Island newspaper Newsday that said the appropriate number of times to let the phone ring before you hang up was 10. Really? Can you imagine your average 20-something having the patience to let an unanswered phone ring ten times? In a perfect world, I think they get to five. Probably four.
But maybe five.
I fondly recall getting my first answering machine. It came with a micro-cassette, and the cornucopia of cords and wires going into and out of it was impressive, to say the least. Oh, how we’d revel in coming up with new outgoing messages for callers to hear. It was nice, but the tapes needed to be replaced every so often. Effective, but annoying. It was a grand day when answering machines no longer needed tapes.
Now, if you were out and about, how would you know if someone tried calling you at home? Well, fear not, for a new-fangled device called a “pager” was soon to find its’ way onto your hip. Once upon a time, pagers were reserved for doctors on the golf course. Remember Dr. Beeper in the movie “ Caddyshack”? That’s the kind of guy I’m talkin’ about. Of course, it wasn’t too long before pagers were available to the masses, and the masses bought them in droves. You could even make up little codes to punch in after you punched in your number. I mean, who hasn’t used the code “911” on a pager?
One thing that pagers and answering machines allowed us to do was “screen” our calls. If you didn’t want to talk to the person who paged you, it was easy enough to say “Nope, didn’t get the page”. With an answering machine, especially the early ones which would erase a message if you looked at it wrong), you could claim the same.
Pagers certainly served their purpose. I recall having one until, I’d say, sometime around 1993. It was around this time that the earliest cellular telephones started becoming available to the public. I remember my first one. The company was Air Touch Cellular. That company’s no longer around. Hell, I don’t think the company that bought Air Touch is still around. But it was around back then. My first cellular (no one was using the term “cell” yet) was about the size of a two-slice toaster. It came with a bag and inside the bag was housed the battery. I remember getting it at the local swap meet (flea market for you east coasters). There weren’t any real stores you could go to in order to get one of these; at least not if you wanted to pay a reasonable amount. These stores, after all, had enormous overhead. So, I ended up getting my first cellular phone in between eating a churro I bought on the previous aisle and buying a 40-pair pack of socks.
I seem to remember the battery weighing about what your average car battery weighs today, but probably not. I had the little antenna coming out of the rear window of my 1985 Chrysler Laser. See, that’s how you could tell who the “with it” folks were; they had a phone antennas coming out of the rear windows of their cars. The handset looked, well, like a telephone, albeit it a circa 1984 modern-looking home phone handset with the keypad imbedded in the handset.
Now it was possible for someone to page you, and you could call them back on your cellular phone.
I don’t recall exactly when it happened. All of a sudden, everything got smaller. Pagers got so small they went away almost entirely. Honestly, I don’t know a single person who still uses a pager. No one. They’ve either moved on to a cell phone, or they’ve died.
There’s a Saturday Night Live skit where Bill Hader plays some nouveau clothes designer, and he pulls out a phone that’s about the size of a Pepperidge Farm Goldfish. That’s a gross exaggeration of reality, of course, but the fact is that “cell” phones (no one uses the term “cellular” now) have gotten a lot smaller. I used to keep my cellular phone behind the passenger seat of my car. It was that big. Now, I have two cell phones; one personal and one business, and I can carry them both in the same pocket.
But, really, they’re so much more than “phones”.
Now, you can surf the web, watch movies, send and receive e-mails, play games, and check the weather in Dubuque (you know, if you wanted to). Honestly, it seems as though the ability to actually make or receive a phone call is merely an ancillary benefit.
And, given how we used to use our answering machines and pagers to avoid talking to people years ago, maybe that’s not necessarily a bad thing…