Now that my son is in middle school, it’s getting close to the point where he will need his own cellular phone. Unlike his younger sisters, he has yet to ask for one but there have been some times when having his own phone would have been handy. Thus far, when he has had to stay after school for extracurricular activities, he has been able to call us from the office or by borrowing a friend’s phone, but I don’t believe that is a good long-term solution. Clearly, it’s time he had one but I just can’t force myself to go out and get it.
I suspect my resistance has its roots in the past. When I was growing up, a telephone was a household appliance and the very idea that each family member should carry their own would have been ludicrous. Phone service at my house was strictly utilitarian. Our rotary telephone, in “refrigerator white,” sat atop the yellow pages on kitchen counter and was wired into the wall via a cord that was less than two feet long. Its position demanded that you stand to use it and, because of its location in the working center of our busy household, calls were necessarily brief.
The term “cellular radio” first came to my attention in 1982 when I overheard my algebra teacher, Mr. Stangvik, talking about investments with some of the smarter students before class. The technology, he told them, would soon put a telephone in everyone’s car and, eventually, their pockets. His explanation of this brighter future was earnest and logical but, to be honest, I wasn’t entirely sold on the idea. I had seen car phones on TV, after all, and while they seemed useful for big wheels like McGarrett on Hawaii Five-0 and for Major Anthony Nelson who was playing some character on Dallas, I could see no reason why plain old Thom Kreutzer from Snohomish, WA would ever need one. The very notion seemed silly, so I filed the idea in my mental waste basket and I went on with my life.
But Mr. Stangvik was right. Just five years after he first mentioned them, I found myself trying to sell what were then called “car phones” as a part of my job at Schuck’s Auto Supply. Five years after that, I took possession of a huge grey handset that I used exclusively for emergencies during my father’s cancer treatment, but, after my father passed, my need for constant communication disappeared and I quickly cancelled the service. I lived happily without a cell phone for almost another decade before I found myself living in Japan and was, once again, compelled to get one – this time for work. It has been mostly due to my wife’s insistence that I have continued to carry one since.
What Mr. Stangvik didn’t know, and what I could never have understood even if he had known to tell us about it, was the way that, once something called the internet was invented, the cell phone would go on to utterly transform the way society accesses information. Had you told 16 year old me that, one day, you could hold an entry point to virtually all of humanity’s knowledge in your hand and that you could freely skip through it while shoving French fries in your face at the local Burger King, I would have thought you were insane. I simply could not have imagined it and would have put the idea firmly alongside invisibility, interstellar travel and eternal youth in the realm of science fiction.
But today, so far into the future that the once far off and fantastic year 2000 is well and gone in life’s rearview mirror, things that I once would have thought to be science fiction are perfectly normal. What hasn’t changed, however is me and, much like the day I first heard Mr. Stangvik mention them, I remain essentially unconvinced that a cellular phone is a necessity. Still, I suppose the cell phone my son needs really isn’t that different than my parents’ old rotary phone in that it‘s a useful tool for a specific job. Having one will make all our lives easier and isn’t that what technology is for? I might not like it, but I suppose it’s time to join the new millennium get him one.