What our phones reveal about what we value

The entire time I was growing up as a kid, we used the same rotary phone, adding a second wall phone to the same line somewhere along the way. But after being given the first iPhone as a birthday gift, I’ve upgraded it four times — with the 3G, 4, 5, and 6 models — since it came out in 2007.

Something is wrong with this. I have bought into something that is somewhat unhealthy. And what bothers me most is that I’ve done so willingly and unthinkingly.

When I was a kid, we expected one thing from the telephone, the making and receiving of voice calls. We wanted to talk to people who were at a distance, so we picked up the receiver, dialed a few numbers (many of which we memorized), and spoke to them. Because long distance calls were pricey, we limited them as much as possible. And that was that. For decades, the tech and the use of phones stayed pretty much the same on the user side.

These are the values expressed by our old phones:

Reliability — The thought of dropped calls wouldn’t have occurred to us in the good old days. Phones with low battery life and slow start-up times would have been laughed at. Apple’s “It just works” slogan is more myth than reality, where most of what we built before assumed it would just work.

Durability — The same phone would be around for decades, as were the stove and furniture and china and other well-made possessions. Things were built to last, including our careers and our marriages.

Frugality — Spending more than $30 on a phone was extravagant, with long distance calls were few and far between. And we bought things with cash, while putting money aside in these novel things called savings accounts.

Simplicity — The phone only did one thing and wasn’t expected to anything else, just like the rest of us.

Uniformity — All phones were pretty much the same— a hand set and dial with 10 numbers — while the European melting pot that was America tried to maintain its white uniformity by ignoring anyone among us who wasn’t.

Stability — Our phones stayed where they were put and didn’t move around. The base was plugged into a wall and the handset was connected by a cord. And we as people were also plugged in and connected to our local communities, not wandering from city to city and job to job and relationship to relationship.

Those were the values of the old America. Just like our phones, none of those values exist in the same way in our culture. Some have morphed, but most have been replaced with other values. And not all of the new values are bad, just like not all of the old values were necessarily good. But the reality remains: They’ve changed.

These are the values expressed in our new phones and culture:

Complexity — We want more out of the same device and don’t mind if that means it’s more complicated. We expect the same things of our lives and over-commit to a host of activities that previous generations wouldn’t have thought to engage in from club sports to viewing the most bizarre forms of reality shows.

Diversity — Variety is the spice of life and we expect everyone and everything to be different  in our new globalized culture. We expect diversity in everything from our phones to our cuisine to our sexuality.

Mobility — Not only do we expect to take our phones and our phone numbers anywhere we go, but we don’t expect to live in any one place for all that long. We are always on the go.

Agility — The ability to change and keep up with change is a hallmark of our times. And so we cherish the ability to download new apps and upgrade old ones, continually configuring our devices and the other details of our lives to fit who we’d like to think we are.

Impulsivity — Where buying expensive items and taking on debt was a cautious, well-thought-out process before, we now are willing to drop $600+ on a phone that will last two years. Where a phone bill used to be about $25/month, now that’s how much it costs just to buy the phone and we haven’t even gotten to the service contract. But we dive into these long-term, repeating costs without counting them first.

Brevity — Nothing last for long anymore. If your computer lasts five years, you’ve had it a long time and probably can’t run most current software. If your phone lasts three years, it’s ancient. But because we’ve made these devices central to our everyday lives, we expect them to be replaced on a regular basis.

Disposability — Most things tend to get tossed within a few years now. Video games that cost $60 today will be worth $3 in another couple years. Furniture made of pressed together and plastic coated wood particles is junked more than passed down from one generation to another.

In the midst of all this, we’ve lost a sense of eternity