Wednesday, May 20, 2009

From the Archives: My First Cell Phone


I was very late in getting a cell phone; by the time I got my first one, in February of 2006, virtually everyone I knew had been using them for years.  This monumental purchase brought about a flurry of mini-epiphanies that I wrote about in an e-mail to my brothers.  It seems fitting to post this now, after having blogged about my first smartphone last week.

My First Cell Phone - February 7, 2006

After holding out for years against the incredulous entreaties of my friends and colleagues, I’ve finally gotten my first cell phone. It's funny: once I made up my mind to buy a phone, and started looking at the different models, I got the strangest feeling. I can only describe it as consumer lust. No, that's not quite it—maybe more like consumer romance. It's a warm, familiar, almost relieved feeling … the visceral sense that once I have this new piece of equipment, everything's going to be okay. Once I have a phone, that I picked out, that is mine, that I’ve set up my way, sitting in my pocket like a talisman, ready to spring into action at a moment's notice, then maybe I can get through this difficult life a little more easily.

I think all consumer goods are a bit like that. We humans live in fear. Fear not just of death, but of the other, of the big wide world we’re in and all the strangers we share it with. We take great comfort, I think, in the familiar. This comfort derives from taming our environments—not just decorating our homes the way we like, but cutting our world down to size by sticking to a few familiar establishments, carving nice ruts between our offices, our shops, and our homes. (Perhaps this is why travel, while exciting, is also ultimately draining.) We even dress according to some corollary of the Golden Rule: thou shalt dress the way your friends and family would have you dress (that is, basically how they do). Most of us even apply to our bodies our own signature scent—deodorant, perfume, or even cologne—which is a bit like a dog or cat marking its territory.

So after careful deliberation, I chose this hot little Pantech number. I believe it is a fitting representation of my no-nonsense yet elegant sensibility. It’s a flip-phone, with a little caller-ID display on the lid so I can screen calls. I like to flip open the top, because it has a nice spring-loaded action that somehow seems, well, sprightly. Occasionally I toy with the little antenna, which only pulls out a few inches and so far hasn't been necessary. But the antenna seems frail, so I get nervous and poke it back in.

I've customized the wallpaper and the screen-saver with photos I took with the phone itself. I chose a ring-tone that I have to say qualifies as ironic: it's a very simple electronic ringing sound, but just enough like an old-fashioned, non-electronic, bell-based ring that you suddenly realize the ring-tone is quadraphonic, or polyphonic, or whatever that term is that means “really cool advanced ring-tone that could even recreate the human voice if it wanted to, as opposed to those embarrassing, tinny, Atari-like ring-tones of those primitive early phones.” It's high-tech pretending it's low-tech, and you're in on the joke.

I, Me, Mine

I was on a business trip back in the era of corporate boondoggles, and had to share a hotel room with a colleague I didn't know. I saw his toiletries laid out next to the sink and was overcome with revulsion. He had a different brand of everything—not one consumer item matched mine. It is a testament to the power of brand loyalty that this array seemed almost an act of open hostility. Prell shampoo, Aim toothpaste, some brand of shaving cream I'd never seen in my life, a funny-looking razor … only when I pondered my reaction did I come to realize how much comfort I get from the familiarity of the products I use.

Beyond merely choosing our consumer products, we get to increase their cozy me-ness by customizing them. Even the simplest product can give that pleasure. I'm not a coffee drinker, but I can well imagine the pleasurable routine coffee entails. A minute ago that cup of coffee belonged to Starbucks, but when I paid for it and took possession, it became mine, and when I put in just the right amount of sweetener (white sugar? Sugar-in-the-Raw? Equal? my choice!) and just the right amount of creamer (skim? whole? half-&-half? fat-free "half-&-half"? powder? my choice!), and stirred it with the stirrer of my choice (red & white plastic swizzle stick? wooden Popsicle stick? plastic spoon?), that simple cup of coffee became totally, uniquely, personally mine, as individual as my fingerprint. Thus armed, I can brave even the most crowded elevator with my identity not only intact but bolstered. Every sip reinforces my sense that amid the tumult of the vast universe, I still exert control—several times a day—over my own little patch of it.

A cell phone gives even more such opportunities: ring tone, wallpaper, screen saver—and that’s just the electronic part. Cell phone accessories comprise a whole other industry. Sure, lots of people have this Motorola phone, but who else has paired it with the cream teal pastel face plate and earth tone plaid holster?

Safety in Numbers

Consumer products become an extension of ourselves, and the cell phone does even more: it ties us to our friends and family. However far we stray from our normal environment, at least we’re not so alone anymore. Struck down by an existential crisis? At least you’ve got a vast contact list embedded in the phone. The simple act of scrolling down the list might give some comfort, and if that’s not enough, just press Send.

Even the phone number of my cell gives me subtle sense of distinction. It was blind luck that I got a number with no ones or zeroes in it, because it resolves to a really cool alphabet mnemonic (which I’m not going to provide here lest it get scrawled on a bathroom wall by a malevolent reader). And because cell phones now offer number portability, that number is mine forever. No matter what phone company contracts I sign or break or accidentally re-enroll in, no matter what happens to my physical phone, whatever happens to me myself for that matter, no matter how badly somebody insults me, no matter how out of place I feel at a cocktail party where everybody but me knows everybody else, nobody can ever take that phone number away from me.

Even the area code gives me pleasure. I'll never forget my pride in finally getting a nationally renowned area code, 415, when I moved from Santa Barbara to Oakland, and then how crestfallen I felt when my area code was suddenly changed to 510. Ha! I should have been grateful they didn't give me something even worse. Until relatively recently, phone switching technology made it impossible for area codes to have anything but a zero or one as the middle digit; consequently, area codes with anything else strike me as so Johnny-come-lately.

As it stands now, my home phone service provider could change my area code anytime they want, but with the cell phone I'm safe. The towns and cities of America can continue subdividing at their cancerous rate, spawning all kinds of new area codes with any damn middle digit at all, so that new numbers in Albany got an area code like 572 or something, and I'd still have that classic 510. I could even move to a different city and keep it—heck, I could move out of state and still take that little bit of California with me.

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