The Mobile Phone at 50
It’s been half a century since the first portable phone call was made on a New York City street, and cellphones have since come to dominate our lives.
Did you know there’s actually a single person we credit for having invented the cellphone? It’s true. And that man, Martin Cooper, has both regrets and high hopes about the ubiquitous rectangular slabs of glass and plastic that have become such an essential and time-consuming part of our lives.
Cooper, who worked for Motorola at the time, made history’s first public phone call from a brick-sized handheld portable device on Sixth Avenue in New York City nearly a half-century ago. On that day, April 3, 1973, Cooper needled his rival at AT&T’s Bell Labs by calling him on the 11-inch-long, 2.5-pound Dyna-TAC prototype that he and his team had begun to design only five months earlier.
And it worked. Even so, he couldn’t have imagined where that first phone call would one day take us.
Cooper, as the AP reports, “spent the better part of the next decade working to bring a commercial version of the device to market, helping to launch the wireless communications industry and, with it, a global revolution in how we communicate, shop and learn about the world.” The Motorola DynaTAC 8000X mobile phone became commercially available in 1983 at a cost of $3,995 (equivalent to about $10,500 today).
Now 94 years old, Cooper was in Barcelona on Monday at the Mobile World Congress, the industry’s biggest trade show, to receive a lifetime achievement award. There, he told journalists that he worries about what his invention has done to human society — from a lack of privacy to social media addiction to the easy access that kids now have to harmful content.
“My most negative opinion,” he said, “is we don’t have any privacy anymore because everything about us is now recorded someplace and accessible to somebody who has enough intense desire to get it.”
We’re not so sure. Privacy is certainly an issue, but what about the control that cellphones now exert over our lives?
In the updated version of his bestselling book The Shallows, technology writer Nicholas Carr recalls the moment when, on the morning of January 9, 2007, Apple CEO Steve Jobs unveiled the iPhone. He called it “revolutionary,” said it “changes everything,” and gave it a prescient and somewhat chilling tagline: “Your life in your pocket.” Indeed.
“Within a few years,” Carr writes, “the cell phone had replaced the desktop and the laptop as the general public’s preferred data processing machine. By delivering a never-ending stream of information into the hands of the masses, the iPhone and its kin completed what the Internet had begun: the consolidation of communications, computing, and media into a single industry — and onto a single device.”
That consolidation hasn’t come without consequence. Carr, citing the Nielsen Company’s survey data, notes that the average American adult now spends an incredible nine hours and 45 minutes each day staring into some sort of device, whether a TV, a computer, or a phone. And that’s 90 minutes more than just five years ago.
One particular app that tracks an individual’s time spent on a cellphone paints an even more alarming picture. As Adam Alter writes on the rise of behavioral addiction in his book Irresistible, “People spend between one and four hours on their phones each day — and many far longer.” He says we spend more time on our phones than any other daily activity except sleeping. Alter says that we spend around 100 hours every month texting, gaming, reading articles, paying bills, scrolling through our Instagram feed, and the like — to the tune of approximately 11 years in our lifetimes.
And it all started when Marty Cooper made that first cellphone call 50 years ago.
This isn’t to say that cellphones have been nothing but bad. Of course not. In fact, Cooper thinks cellphone technology’s best days may still be ahead in areas such as education and healthcare. “Between the cellphone and medical technology and the Internet,” he said, “we are going to conquer disease.”
Cooper tells CNBC, “The next generation will have the phone embedded under the skin of their ears.” And charged by our own bodies, no less.
So we’ve got that to look forward to. Which is nice.
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