In the 1980s, my family had a black rotary phone that sat on the wall in the corner of the kitchen. I remember learning about 911, and how we joked that it would be faster to dial 111, as the 9 had to go all the way around the circle and back. The dial made a neat noise, sort of a rattle.
The phone had a little counter where the phone book and various papers sat, and below that, a square metal grate through which hot air came into the kitchen. This was a great place to sit: warm air on my back, a cozy little cubby, and a good view of whatever was going on in the kitchen. My mom would talk on the phone and the long spiral cord stretched out. I’d wrap a bit of the cord around my fingers.
I remember getting caller ID and using *69, which would tell you the phone number for the previous incoming call. For a little while, we had calling cards, for long-distance phone calls. I rarely if ever used a phone booth.
I don’t think I ever really liked talking on the phone the way that some people do. It was fine, just a necessary task rather than a pleasure. In contrast, I took to the internet. In high school and college I made friends on Bulletin Boards, chatted with classmates on AIM (AOL instant messenger), and even made a rudimentary website for myself using HTML. The internet was so visual and colorful; absolutely mesmerizing.
I got my first cell phone in graduate school, when I spent a summer in Iowa doing research in 2004. It was a flip phone, which I loved because it looked like a Star Trek communicator. I learned to keep it on all the time and plug it in at night. I learned to leave it in the car if I went to a movie, because if I turned it off, I would forget to turn it back on. The one phone call that stands out in my memory is talking to my Dad, who had just watched the Democratic National Congress on TV, where Barack Obama spoke. “Talk about the next president!” he said.
I eventually lost my flip phone, and got one that had a keyboard. My girlfriend at the time was pleased, because now I could text her back right away. It no longer took me 5 minutes to compose a text using the number pad. This was 2010.
My last non-smart phone, also one with a sliding key board, started to fall apart from wear and tear in 2018. It permanently turned itself to vibrate-only, and the space bar key wore out. It’s time to get with the future, I thought. It’s time for a smart phone.
My friend got me a smart phone through a program called SafeLink. It’s a free phone. I’ve had nothing but problems with it. A few weeks ago, I came back from the dog park and noticed something going on at the neighbor’s house. My neighbor’s father was having a seizure on the front step. “Please help!” she shouted. “My phone won’t turn on!” I ran inside and grabbed my phone. I ran back outside and dialed 911. The call dropped. (Cell phones, they told us, were the way to go. They’d be great in emergencies!) I was able to call back, and my neighbor was able to get her phone working.
This was an anxiety-inducing event. This event, along with a few other problems, has meant my phone phobia has gotten worse and I’ve developed a hostile relationship to this object. I’ve been largely unable to make phone calls for months, which has been a real problem.
When I started a new job, I noticed that I was able to make phone calls from the desk phone. It simply feels different than using a cell phone. The cell phone disappears from my view when I hold it to my ear, so it feels like I’m talking to the air. It’s the opposite of a visual experience. Talking on a cell phone in particular feels unmoored, distant, adrift; I’m a person that likes to feel grounded.
I admit I do enjoy having a pocket computer (see today’s Dinosaur comics: http://www.qwantz.com/index.php?comic=3319), for things like Google maps, but I don’t enjoy having a “smart phone” because it doesn’t work as a phone. I want to go back to a house phone. Perhaps this is party because I those warm memories of the heating vent and the long spiral cord, of listening to my mom talk to her friends. Of my family gently arguing over who is going to be the one to call and order food. The sturdiness of the object itself, they way you can tilt your head and hold the phone between your ear and your shoulder, if you need both your hands free.
Objects in our lives are imbued with emotion. I want some of those warm emotions around the tools I use to communicate. I have such feelings with computers. Writing to communicate– via email or twitter or blog post– is so easy for me that I barely have to think about it. I imagine phones are like this for other people, though admittedly it’s hard to really imagine what that feels like.