[August 2nd marks the 100th anniversary of inventor Alexander Graham Bell’s death. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy some famous phones in American culture, leading up to a special weekend post on AGB’s life and legacies!]
On one loss, one gain, and one effect too close to call with the defining technology of our age.
1) Wandering: In the summer of 2002, I had the opportunity to spend a month in Rome as part of my grad school program; it was and remains one of the greatest experiences of my life to date. There are lots of reasons why, but very high on the list is the simple but stunning experience of wandering the city, often looking for somewhere or something in particular but always doing so in a meandering way that allowed for every one of my favorite a-ha moments. That experience might have still been possible if I had a smartphone with a maps app, but at the very least I’d have likely been looking down at my phone a good bit of the time, and would have missed the unexpected, perspective- and life-altering views that I wrote about in that hyperlinked post. Maps has been immeasurably helpful in my driving life, but I do wonder how much wandering we’ve lost along the way.
2) Music: I do my best not to be a luddite nor a curmudgeon about technology, though, and one surprising and absolutely delightful benefit of smartphones for me has been helping me get back into albums. I know that might be blasphemy to vinyl lovers, and as someone who grew up on cassette tapes I’ll always have a nostalgic fondness for flipping the tape over and pressing play on side two. (For my money, the best side two opening track is Midnight Oil’s “The Dead Heart” from Diesel and Dust.) But thanks to the combination of Apple Music on my phone and the ability to connect that phone to my car radio and play it on my commute, I’ve been able over the last couple years to listen to countless albums in their entirety—childhood favorites like that magisterial Midnight Oil record, new releases like The Killers’ excellent Pressure Machine, and so, so many more. I know the debates over digital music, but it’s been an amazing game-changer for this lifelong listener.
3) Conversation: This is a really tough one for me to call. On the one hand, as a divorced single dad I am forever indebted to the ability of my teenage sons and I, thanks almost entirely to our smartphones, to stay connected in so many ways during the times that we’re apart (I’m particularly fond of texting gifs and emojis back and forth as we watch a Celtics basketball game “together,” for example). Compared to the first post-divorce years, when I would often only hear from the boys in my solo weeks during our short bedtime phone calls, these new layers of conversation are incredibly welcome and moving. But (and here comes the curmudgeon side of me, #sorrynotsorry) I will never be anything other than flabbergasted at the number of people who are on their smartphone while in an in-person conversation with someone at the same time. I know distraction is possible in any circumstance, with or without technology, but I think these little computers in our pockets have offered a whole new batch of hugely easy ways not to be connected to what and who is right in front of us.
AGB post this weekend,
PS. What do you think? Famous cultural phones you’d highlight?