I've just gotten a new cell phone, an iPhone 4, which has all sorts of new bells and whistles my old one didn't have. My old phone didn't have smartphone things, so now I'm all oh my God, I'm checking my e-mail – while standing in the street!!! On my phone!!! And I can record video and send it to my friends!!! And I can do video phone conversations!!! It's like buying a little chunk of the future as envisioned by myself as a 12-year old: stylish, shiny, black objects of unapparent purpose!
But actually, the whole thing has made me think of how when I was young the telephone as technology still felt new-ish, because my grandparents had lived in a world where almost noone had phones. But in fact, the telephone was already over a hundred years old, as this piece by Mark Twain from 1880 reminded me:
It reminds me of late 1990s opinion pieces from retired school teachers writing columns in local papers on kids these days with the hair and the music and the speaking into their cell phones in public. Or local radio hosts going I mean — who wants to hear other people's conversations? The essay by Twain, though cute and well-written, is laced with that same sort of cluelessness about what the technology actually means as social change. Like columnists of old, it tries to manage the shock of the new by describing life with the new thing. It is still too close by to manage to think of what this changes. The writers react by writing just about how it is.Then followed that queerest of all the queer things in this world,—a conversation with only one end to it. You hear questions asked; you don't hear the answer. You hear invitations given; you hear no thanks in return. You have listening pauses of dead silence, followed by apparently irrelevant and unjustifiable exclamations of glad surprise, or sorrow, or dismay.