We were early adopters of email, and also of cellphones. Our first email account was through CompuServe, and our user name was a string of numbers that we didn’t even get to pick, so for me they were impossible to remember. My 32-year-old daughter Sabrina, however, can still recite that string of numbers, twenty-some years later. I could call her up in Spain right now and she would rattle them off for me. We were pioneers. When my now-40-year-old niece, the oldest of the next generation in my family, went off to Wellesley in 1995, she was given an email account by the college. My sister realized that she needed to get email so that she could communicate easily with her daughter, and she had no idea how to do it, so she turned to us for advice, because we were literally the only people she knew who had email. Of course, within a few years, everyone had it, which was a good thing because then we could all email each other.
Our first cellphones were enormous. I wish I had kept them, it would have been fun to take a picture of them for this story, but alas when someone was having a cellphone drive for battered women, I donated them. They were flip phones, with an antenna that you had to pull out when you were making or receiving a call. The featured image, courtesy of Google Images, is approximately what they looked like, but it doesn’t really show how bulky they were. You certainly couldn’t put one in your pocket. And the charges to use them were enormous too. Once for a family reunion we were caravaning from New York City up to the Catskills in several cars, and my husband and I were in different cars. My car was at a tollbooth, and I didn’t see his car, so I got worried and decided to call him and find out where he was. It turned out he was also at the tollbooth, just a few lanes away, but we had to pay roaming charges on both phones, as well as who knows what other fees, and it ended up being about a twenty dollar phone call.
We have been through many generations of cellphones and many different email accounts since then, and each time things improve. When we switched from dial-up internet to DSL, that was major, because before that I had to tell the kids to get off the computer any time I was expecting a phone call.
The next big leap was to smart phones, combining the two technologies and turning the phone into a computer in your pocket. I resisted the change for a long time, even after most of my friends and family had them, and now I have no idea why. I remember telling someone, when I was driving a long distance to meet her, “Don’t forget, I can’t access email on my phone, so if you need to get in touch with me you have to do it by text, not email.” Of course now we’ve come full circle, and even though my kids can see emails on their phones, they much prefer it when I text them.
Mostly, I embrace all this new technology. It does make life a lot easier. But what I don’t like is people looking at their phones even when they are with other people. I don’t allow phones at my dinner table, and the kids comply with that rule, although sometimes my husband violates it! When I was hanging out in Harvard Yard for my reunion, it was depressing to see students walking along the paths staring at their phones instead of looking around them. I’m sure it decreases the number of new people that they meet, because they aren’t available for real-life interactions, only virtual ones. And I also find it annoying that every time anyone states a fact in conversation, someone else whips out a phone to check on whether it is correct or not. I liked it better when we could think we knew things, and even be wrong with impunity, without being contradicted by Google!
I love this tour through the evolution of cell phones. I’m particularly struck by your last two sentences about the cultural impact of being able to check a fact in real time. Patti and I try not to whip out our phones in social groups, but sometimes the temptation is irresistible. And sometimes I WISH other people would check their facts before they start spouting off!
Suzy, I remember having a big, brick of a cell phone that I kept in my car glove box for emergencies. It had an adaptor that plugged into the cigarette lighter in the car, so didn’t have to stay charged. I rarely used it. The first phone I really used was a flip phone, but I didn’t know how to program numbers into it, so had little stickers on it with Dan’s number and the kids’ schools. That was the phone I had on 9/11 (I think I reference it in my story).
I love your story title. I can sing the song right now! You are always so clever with your titles and I know all the songs, which makes it so fun for me!
My husband accuses me of using my phone too much, but he’s the one who is always whipping it out to fact check at dinner (as is one of your pet peeves). I have a family of male gear heads, so that goes with the territory. We heard Sherry Turkle from MIT speak about this very topic on the Vineyard two summers ago. Her research shows that this generation is growing up lacking empathy because they don’t know how to talk face to face, they only text or email, or communicate via social media. It is very worrisome. But she says if you take away their devices, they can be trained to make eye contact and learn empathy, so there is hope.
I love your observations and writing, as always.
As always, a terrific story, Suzy. What is particularly good is how you highlight all of the now laughable features of then cutting edge personal technology: the brick-like phone, the absurd charges, the torture that was dial-up (and made us all hate AOL). And then you address your current pet peeves, which are dead on — most particularly, the obsessive checking of phones in lieu of actual social interactions and the general lobotomization of those damn technophile kids these days. You have really nailed it.
And I love the fact that you always find a great title for your stories from a Retro song. Of course, these days, we don’t memorize phone numbers; just look for the name in our contact or favorites list.
I think it was a poetic if not technological loss when we moved from named exchanges to “digit dialing.” I will never forget that Beechwood number, and am convinced it still rings the phone at 442 Glenwood Avenue.
I agree, I liked having those exchanges better, because it made it easier to remember someone’s number. And yes, the poetry of it too – imagine having a song about somebody’s phone number now, consisting only of seven (or more likely 10) digits and no words.
Do you think the Marvelettes were friends with the Pixies Three?
Oh, definitely! All those girl groups lived together and did each other’s hair!
Another engaging romp through Suzyland! I was late in joining the cell phone family, so I missed the experience you describe above, learning how to master this Bulky New [flip phone] World. You also brought back a memory of the ringing, hissing death rattle of early dial-up connections.
Good catch on the fact-checkers! What a helluva way to throw a damper on a good, raucous political conversation. Full disclosure: I whipped out my iPhone just this a.m. to corroborate details of the Alabama election.
Thanks as always for a warm and wonderful recollection!