Phones Have Never Been Normal

I was born in the early 1980s. In the first house I remember living, we had a phone that was a pale yellow, with a thick transluscent plastic ring on the front. You dialed a number by sliding that ring around in sequence. When you picked it up, you could make a call to someone who was physically in their home at the time you called them. It had a long, twisty cable that you could really mess up but which kept you near it, by the little table in the hallway. The cable was very short – you could stand up, next to the phone, but that was it.

There was another phone I could remember, kinda, at the train station kinda? This was a house in Canberra; I remembered we shared it with another family. I remember their black dog. I remember the squashed in little house and I remembered the frosty grass of a morning. I dimly remember someone setting off fireworks in the backyard. The train station phone was a big, shiny mottled greeny-grey box, up on a stand. I don’t remember seeing that kind of phone again, because that phone had a dial.

The first house I remembered living in for a long time, we had a ‘touch tone’ phone. It had a pale cream colour, and it was designed to be easily made in a low polygon PS1 graphics. The whole thing was a rectangle, the buttons were grey rectangles, the text on the buttons was white and italicised san-serif font. There was a phone in the living room, over near the window by the living room table, and it had a little chair next to it and a hutch for it. The hutch held the phone books – a yellow pages and a white pages. The cable was still twisty. If Dad had to discuss something serious with the Pastor, we left the room – and maybe even closed the glass doors between the living room and the hall, because we had to give the phone privacy.

By the time I was remembering what payphones looked like there were two basic forms of it. There were phone booths, which had a little glass or plastic shielding around them, like a phone booth Clark Kent got into, back in the black-and-white-cartoon times, but there was no door. As an adult I know it makes a lot of sense that we never had phone booths because a glass-walled box in Australia without one side being open was a real sure fire way to make a heat exhaustion zone in a place where you get 40 degree temperatures every year and snow never. The other ones I saw were these squat, orange affairs, rounded at the edges, and with a black panel and white number buttons, which were made that way so that they could sit in the foyer of businesses or the like. I understand that you could pay a small fee to Telecom and they’d put that phone there, in your foyer, and handle its maintenance and then people might come into your foyer to use a phone and maybe then you could sell them some kind of a businessing.

Dad got a second phone eventually; it lived in his bedroom, by his computer, on a peg that was designed to hold the phone unit. The cable was still the same length but now he could sit in his chair and talk on the phone while doing things on his computer. This also opened the door to using his loud, squelchy modem.

The school had a portable phone. It was a squelchy thing with a big rubbery housing and a wobbly antenna that meant the principal could have the phone on him even as he roamed from one building to another. It had to be charging at the end of the day, and I always saw him put it on charge, because I was always on detention. It had no cable. He could answer it anywhere. I literally never remember seeing him take a call, but I always remember him carrying it around and I always remember him making a big deal about students never touching the phone.

I remember when Dad’s friend who made a newsletter about liking SAABs first brought a mobile phone into our house. It was the length of my forearm. It sat on the bed in my dad’s room, where he was working on the newsletter with her, next to the cat, and it deformed the bedclothes around it, this ponderous weight. She remarked that it was a very nice one, because it was better than the one she’d seen a client have a few years ago, which was a small suitcase that you had to fold open to access the phone.

I remember the TVs advertising that you could now buy a small card that would have phone calls ‘stored’ on it – so parents could give their kids a way to call home, without giving them cash. I remember ads on the TV of teenagers in phone booths, looking upset, as they showed relief in slow motion when clearly, whoever it was picked up. The cable on these phones was thick and metal and made up of silver and black rings.

I remember dad getting a mobile phone for work. I barely remember a thing about it.

I remember dad getting a mobile phone for mum. Then I remember him getting phones for the rest of us.

I remember that phone finally being replaced after I’d left home and gotten married. It got replaced with a proto-smartphone that could play music. I took it to work and listened to the music on it while at my desk doing data entry. It used a proprietary USB cable and I don’t know what happened to it.

I got given my first iPod then – an iPod touch. I shudder to think what it cost. I used it so much. I was wowed by the sheer scope of it. It wasn’t a phone, it couldn’t download – but I put my entire mp3 collection on it, and took it to work, until I got fired. It didn’t have a cable.

I got a smartphone once I had accepted the iPod touch. I actually used both for a long time, because I felt ‘bad’ not getting the right number of years out of the Touch. It was such a precious gift, from someone I love, after all.

I think I got my first proper smartphone the year I started university, or maybe one before. I know I got onto twitter the year I started University. I’ve been using a phone in that model since then, which is nearing on nine years now. At first, the phone had a specific space to charge, because it only needed to charge once a day. Now I have chargers around the house and a charger in my bag, which also gets charged, in case I need it.

This means that the current ‘now’, of an always-internet-available, charger-reliant, phone-always-on-my-person me, is at best about seven years old.

In 2020, the book Conflict Is Not Abuse came out, and got commented on, with one passage about how it’s wild that people are averse to answering their phones. The idea the book seemed to suggest is that hey, everyone has a phone now, you can always answer your phone, why don’t you answer your phone? Why do you demand I text first? And it was a really interesting thing to me because what the passage seemed to consider, seemed to expect, was that everyone is used to their phones and the way phones have always been used is the way they should be being used.

And like, good luck to the authors of the book. I have no idea. They might be great, but on this point, I think this entire position is giving in to a sort of mental trick that mediums are capable of inflicting on our brains. TV only had to be a nightly thing for a few years before it was normal to always be watching the TV, after all. Widespread social media use is maybe five years old for a lot of boomers and yet, they are absolutely ensnared with its ‘normalcy.’

Through my entire life, I have always had phones around, but the phone and my relationship to it has never been consistent. Growing up we basically had a spot in the hallway for it, its own little physical shrine, a room where it could be given its privacy. Books and furniture dedicated to it. A cable that represented proximity to the phone. Authority to the object, who was expected to have a phone.

There has never been a normal way for phones to exist in your life.

There has always only ever been the way we use phones right now.

When my father was born, Sydney and Melbourne and Adelaide, three different cities that he lived in, could not talk to one another by phone.