Throughout twentieth-century science fiction, small portable communicators have been a staple of imaginative depictions of the future. They rank with hover cars and advanced spacecraft as the most iconic pieces of predicted technology. Unlike hover cars and advanced spacecraft, however, small portable communicators are not just real, they are essential and indispensable aspects of contemporary life.
This article will doubtless be read on some of these devices, which would be unimaginable to our ancestors of just a few generations ago. We are still largely earthbound. Our means of communication, however, are not. Here is a look at cell phones then and now.
1973 was the year that saw our liberation – from landlines, telephone booths, and other trappings. That was the year that the first cell phone, a Motorola built by a team led by Martin Cooper, was tested and released. Its price tag was in the thousands, and though the technology may seem clunky and even comical to Millenials who grew up with phones that could fit snugly in their palm, the first model was a breakthrough. Since it was both expensive and new, the first cell phone became a status symbol in the way that the latest iPhone or Android model might be today. They are ubiquitous in yuppie caricatures of the period, foreshadowing the culture of constant connectedness and accessibility to the workplace that some celebrate and some lament.
The grey, brick-like rectangle may bring to mind the shoe-phone from Get Smart rather than the sleek smartphones of today or the flip-phones of a generation ago. In other words, it may seem more like a relic than a pivotal turning point, even for those who comprehend its significance on an intellectual level.
Perhaps the funniest thing about this phone, and the strangest thing for young people today to observe, is its seeming lack of functionality. It was a phone, and only a phone. Its users could not send text messages, much less the photo and video messages that are ubiquitous today. The grainy, pixelated games we remember with laughter or nostalgia, sometimes both, were not even a possibility on these models. The games we play on today’s smart phones, which require both internet connectivity and advanced video processing capabilities, would hardly have occurred to Martin Cooper’s team. The Internet so many people access from their phones had been conceptualized but not implemented on any great scale. The first Motorola cell phone was a digital newcomer in a largely analog world, the harbinger of many innovations to come and the doorway through which they were able to proceed.
This phone, which had less than an hour of charge and required a bulky battery pack, was the direct ancestor of the phones we carry today, however little it resembled them. Comparing its harsh, grey form and utilitarian function to our own devices can feel a bit like looking at black and white photos of our distant ancestors. Taken at Ellis Island, at a stiff and formal studio, or in front of a sod house on the Great Plains, these can seem to have little to do with our present reality. It is easy to see these photos as we see the first cell phones: as stilted, self-serious curiosities that demonstrate our superiority or at least vastly preferable circumstances in this day and age.
Contemplating early cell phones and comparing them to our own bells-whistles-and-video-processors versions invites thoughts on the passing of time and the nature of progress, technological and otherwise. The advances in communications technology that have appeared in our lifetimes have been tremendous. However, it is helpful to consider their roles in our lives, and to make time for life outside the screen, lest our tangible realities start to seem grey, angular, and dull compared to the vividness that can be found on little screens.