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The temporary allure of a new phone

A cell phone is both a convenience and an electronic leash. I resisted carrying a phone for years, and remember explaining to a supervisor that one of my favorite things about being in my car was that nobody could call me when I was driving.

Eventually, I was dragged kicking and screaming into the modern age, and now it’s hard to remember what it was like to not always be connected to everything. Remember when people used to wonder about things, rather than just pulling out their phone and asking Google?

Remember when you wouldn’t know that your cousin was thinking about baking a pie unless you happened to talk to her? Remember when we communicated in words, rather than just initials (FWIW, LOL)? Those were primitive times indeed—it’s a wonder we survived.

So when my three-year-old phone began to develop a new feature inspired by the music of Prince that involved filling the screen with virtual drops of purple rain that wouldn’t go away, I plunged into the world of phone shopping and was astonished by the new technology that’s available.

The Samsung Galaxy tracks your eyes and reads your fingerprints (“The perfect phone” raves the National Security Agency). The Motorola Moto X learns to recognize your voice so it can respond to your commands while ignoring others. And the Apple iPhone lets you stand in line every year or so to buy a new phone that’s a lot like your old phone, only shinier.

I eventually bought a Nexus 5 from Google, since I assume that soon Google will own everything worth owning, including all of us. It’s a pretty good phone, but I have a few ideas for new features in future releases:

  • PhoneTooth: Based on Bluetooth technology, this dental implant would send sound directly to your ears through bone conduction, and capture the sound of your voice before it even leaves your mouth. With PhoneTooth, you’d get the convenience of a Bluetooth headset without the visible earpiece that makes random strangers want to slap you.
  • WinterWatch: This special app for Minnesotans would combine weather data from the web and readings from the phone’s built-in barometer to identify which of the five stages of winter you’re currently in (denial, anger, bargaining, depression, April).
  • FutureCall: If the phone detects that you’re about to take a second piece of pie, it would simulate a call from a future you, running on a treadmill, begging you to reconsider.
  • Dial-a-Prayer: This feature responds to your prayers with a genuine audible voice from God (Siri doesn’t count). Unfortunately, there are a lot of technological (and theological) barriers to be overcome before this feature is introduced, but I’d pay big bucks for this app.

In the future, it’s possible that we’ll do away with phones entirely, replacing them with surgically implanted tech that connects us directly to the Internet, pumping sensory information into our bodies and placing a virtual display directly into our field of vision. This sort of always-on technology could increase the average teenager’s social media use by up to 5 percent.

Despite my love for futuristic communication technology, I’m also the proud owner of an old-fashioned rotary phone, which boasts of its own strong features:

  • The retro handset reminds users why sticking out your thumb and little finger became the universal sign for “phone call.”
  • The phone can’t be misplaced, thanks to patented “Stuck to the wall with a wire” technology.
  • The rotary dial gives you plenty of time to think about whether you really need to be making this call.

Best of all, that heavy, clunky rotary phone is built so solidly that it could easily be used for home defense. It’s still going strong a half-century after it was manufactured. Somehow I don’t think I’ll be getting quite that much mileage out of my new cell phone.


— by Doug Trouten

Trouten is chair of the Communication Department at the University of Northwestern – St. Paul.