Of all the absurd things I’ve hoarded over the years, by far the stupidest collection in my closet is a box of old mobile phones. I’ve told myself that if my current phone got crushed under a bus, I could always pull out one of these old beauties and make use of it in a pinch. Or if there were an apocalypse, I might be able to barter one away in exchange for food or water.
But in truth, I think I’ve just held on to them because they mark the passage of time, a less sentimental version of one’s elementary school photos. Plus, how often do we get to document, on such a personal level, the rapid evolution of a particular piece of technology?
When mobile phones were first introduced, they were elusive status symbols, the accessories of celebrities and people who needed to be reached at any moment of the day. Their huge, brick-like size announced their worth: Look at me, they screamed, while their various accessories and cables splayed vulgarly across the caller’s desk or car dashboard. My father, a doctor who was often on call at the hospital, had one of these enormous phones, and none of us was allowed to touch it. On the rare occasion that he used his phone, he would count each minute of use, as if our entire college savings were being drained before our eyes.
But luxury is defined in part by scarcity. Bit by bit, phones got smaller and cheaper and into the hands of more people. Having a phone was no longer a privilege reserved for the few.
Our phones all basically look the same and can do the same things. Most people can’t tell the difference between one year’s iPhone and the next.
I got my first phone in 2001. While it was nothing fancy, it was a wondrous thing that fit in the palm of my hand and made phone calls. It could also — well, no, that was really all it could do: make phone calls. Oh, and text messages, but that was a pain. Each button represented three different letters in the alphabet, and sending a text often took longer than it was worth.
That phone now sits in my closet next to the phone I bought when I moved to France a few years later. The French phone couldn’t do much more than the older American phone, but it came with a pack of stickers, which of course I also saved (stickers being another key part of my apocalypse survival strategy). If it weren’t for the French brand name, I wouldn’t be able to tell the difference between those phones. No doubt phones had gotten incrementally faster and sleeker over that three-year span, but at the end of the day, both were simply phones that I could use on the go — useful, but not absorbing.
In a similar vein, I would be hard-pressed to claim that those early devices said anything about me other than that I was young and not interested in paying for a landline. Maybe it was my relative lack of income, but I never once thought of these early-aught phones as status symbols the way I had back when phones were scarce — they were simply pieces of plastic and wire that helped me make calls from one place to another. They seemed about as unique to me as paper towels or USB sticks.
And yet, once smartphones rolled onto the scene, everything seemed to change. Overnight, it seemed that phones had once again become major status symbols.
Beginning in 2007, it was no longer a question as to whether you had a phone, but rather what kind of phone you owned. One’s choice of device spoke volumes — it fit you into a tidy categorization of wealth and interests. Having an iPhone meant you had money. A BlackBerry? Lots of money. An Android? Not so much. A flip phone? That was just kind of embarrassing.
It wasn’t just about wealth — your phone post-2007 said something about your lifestyle. iPhone users were the creative types. Android users were into tech. BlackBerry users — while those still existed — were men in suits who fired off angry, monosyllabic emails and probably made inappropriate comments to the secretaries in the coffee room.
There were now phones for any need or purpose. Even thematic phones had a decent run in some parts of the world. On a work trip to Jakarta, I picked up a special-edition “ladies-only” phone — a pink device sparkling with white plastic crystals. Then there was my double-SIM-card phone, also an acquisition from a work trip, which made it cheaper to call people on different phone networks. (A local woman told me men used them to keep their wives in the dark about their mistresses.) And let’s not forget my burner phone, which I kept for all my personal calls during my early years of tin-hat paranoia about government surveillance. (At the time, I was a bit self-conscious about my paranoia; now it just seems to have been prescient.)
All of which is to say that 10 years ago there was a wealth of phone options and a whole lot of competition. We take it for granted now, but the touchscreen, app stores, and fingerprint scanning were all pretty big breakthroughs. Without them, phones never would have taken over our lives and attention spans as they have since.
Just as we saw in the transition from big bricks to small flip phones, most people are no longer looking to their phone as a sign of social superiority.
But today there are essentially two operating systems — Apple and Android — and our phones all basically look the same and can do the same things. For all the millions poured into marketing campaigns, most people can’t tell the difference between one year’s iPhone and the next. Yes, there are still people who get pretty excited about the annual phone rollout, the ones who will twist their wrist so you can see their vintage Cortébert watch or list all the specs of the new iPhone XS Max (up to 512GB of storage! 4GB memory! 2,688x1,242 screen resolution!).
But for most of us, phones just don’t feel special enough anymore to warrant their steep price tag. As status symbols, they’re a far cry from designer handbags or luxury cars. A black rectangle just doesn’t give off the same godlike aura as a Porsche or Vuitton bag. Nor are they great for expressing your personality. That ladies edition aside, most phones come in just a few similar colors and sizes.
But there’s a bigger problem that has nothing to do with the relative inconspicuousness of phones: incremental innovation. Each year, we’re told via loud, energetic ads that we should upgrade to the next version of our device. But at the end of the day, what are we really getting in exchange beyond a slightly better camera and screen? (And, most lately, in a comic turn of events, phones that help reduce our usage of them or give us stripped-down versions so we can only make calls and text.)
To be clear, I’m not arguing for a new era of people waving their big phones like those cocaine-bingeing bankers of the 1980s. As a general rule, getting technology in the hands of more people is a good thing. My point is simply that phones have lost their differentiation, with little physical difference to support consumers who love status symbols and only incremental improvements for those who are focused on utility. If your phone isn’t broken, there’s really little reason for you to upgrade all that often.
Sure enough, the latest numbers show that people are upgrading their phones at a much slower rate than before. Just as we saw in the transition from the big bricks to small flip phones, most people are no longer looking to their phone as a sign of social superiority but rather as a bundle of plastic and wires that can get a bunch of things done for them.
If the companies want our money, they’ll have to build far more magical devices or figure out how to add some glitz and glam on the side. Bring us a gigantic phone we can swim in. Or a phone that will whisper compliments to us as we walk down the street. A phone that populates everything around us with AR-driven dancing ponies, or one that will double as a Swiss army knife in the event of the apocalypse I keep worrying about.
In the absence of all that, I’m sticking with my current 2017 phone until it breaks. I’ll spend my money on things that really show people who I am — like drinking raw water, putting jade eggs in my hoohaw, and raising chickens in my backyard biosphere. And when that phone finally breaks, I’ll do something really radical — go phoneless. The ultimate status symbol, of course, being someone who is so superior to everyone that they don’t need to communicate with anyone.