The early nineties was a fun time to grow up. It was the perfect time to experience changing technology. The drawbacks of early nineties tech were my parents problem - the expensive unwieldy computers, dial up internet, VCRs, cassettes, and fax machines. But as a kid, all the outdated technology was my playground. I got to spend just enough time with early nineties tech to develop my own appreciation and nostalgia just before all these relics were chucked to the curb.
I’m proud to have grown up using a handset telephone for most of my childhood. I remember the world before cell phones where I committed my best friends’ home phone numbers to memory, and for every thing else I had to rely on my mom’s handwritten phone book - even for the number to the pizza place across the street.
There was an etiquette to answering the phone, and as a kid, answering the phone for your parents was a fun, small way to contribute to the family. You were not allowed to just flat out ask Who is this?. Instead the phrase May I ask who is calling? landed a little more politely. Although our family was never one of those “Jones Residence, this is Alex speaking” houses, that just came off as too stuffy for us.
We had an answering machine too. At one point we had an answering machine that took real tapes, but later in life we switched to a newer digital one. Coached by my dad, my little sister Sarah recorded the answering machine greeting when she was probably seven, and we kept it that way.
By the time I was in high school, my family went all in on a set of Motorola Nextel cell phones. The most distinguishing feature of the Nextel phone was the rubber. Black rubber lined the outside, the inside, the bezel around the screen, and even the buttons. We joked that you could drop a Nextel phone from a skyscraper, and after bouncing on the pavement and putting someone in the hospital, the phone would be absolutely fine.
I think we even tested the indestructible lore of the Nextel using my sister’s device, skidding it down the driveway in the hot summer sun. Sure enough, she picked it up off the pavement, and there wasn’t even a scratch to be seen.
One of the coolest parts of the Nextel at the time was the push to talk feature. If we were within range of each other, I could reach anyone in my family over a built-in walkie talkie. Using little rubber buttons on the side, I could navigate my address book of contacts and send a quick update all without opening the phone or getting off my bike.
One weekend while staying at my friend’s house, I had my phone out on their kitchen table while we were eating breakfast. My friend’s dad was a paramedic, and as it turned out, the paramedics in our suburb all carried Nextel phones as well.
“They gave us this special code that lets us use more towers so the walkie talkie works from pretty much anywhere,” he explained. “Why don’t you do it to his phone too, Johnny.”
Johnny grinned, and after punching in a cryptic set of numbers into the keypad, my phone chirped. From that day on, I had a special emergency services glyph in the top corner of the little LCD screen, and as promised, I had reception pretty much everywhere I went.
My family almost exclusively used the free walkie talkie feature to communicate, but there was a grave oversight. Everything said over walkie talkie was instantaneous and barked through a loud speaker phone without warning. My mom send me to the nearby Target on my bike to pick up some things for her. Walking through the middle of a busy Target, suddenly my phone chirped.
“Hey Alex, get another back of boxers, I found another pair with a hole in them.”
Blushing, I fumbled my phone out of the holster and mashed the mute button, trying to save face in the middle of the store crowded with weekend shoppers.
I still maintain that the Motorola Nextel was the perfect phone. In fact, the only reason why we had to upgrade was because they were discontinued.
My second phone was the coveted Motorola Razr. I first caught a glimpse of its sleek and alluring form factor during a super bowl commercial. Razr mania caught fire, and soon everyone at school was sporting the thin, shiny, dagger like cell phone.
I felt lucky to get my own. I felt like a secret agent taking it out of the box. But after spending about a month with the new phone, it became clear that beyond the fancy thing form factor, the Motorola Razr was nothing short of an electronic turd. The battery would run out before the end of the day, even just idling in my locker. The buttons were cheap and sticky. The software was sluggish, and my phone would sometimes crash and reboot for no reason.
I reluctantly adapted. Without the walkie talkie feature I had grown to love, I had to learn how to text. Before T9, each letter had to be punched in one at a time - the 1 key three times to make a C, a one second pause, a single press to make an A, etc.
One thing that the Razr did have going for it was the wallpapers. You could set the menu screen to a low resolution sunset, and ocean view, or a rain forest. One night while lying in bed, I navigated to a menu option to download extra wallpapers and unwittingly clicked through an agreement to add an expensive up-charge to our phone bill. My dad confronted me about it a week later, informing me that the Family Guy wallpaper I downloaded costed us an extra thirty dollars that month.
I also liked the camera. Being able to take photos on demand was an unforeseen perk of my lukewarm Razr lifestyle. I mostly used the camera to make my own calming menu wallpaper collection, snapping pictures of rainy car windshields, empty parking lots, and fourth of July fireworks.
By the time I was ready to upgrade from my Razr, the iPhone had swallowed up the whole market. I didn’t want to commit to a smartphone just yet, so I went to the Sprint store to pick up a new flip phone.
Something was very different this time around. Sprint had also gone all in on the iPhone, but in the far back dimly lit corner of the store was just a flip phone for sale. The buttons were humongous, and the dial tones were needlessly loud. There were no customizations or options. The manual that came with my new phone featured some old people sitting on a park bench, and all of the sudden I realized that I had bought a phone meant for Sprint’s elderly customers.
My old person phone held out until I finally upgraded to an iPhone 4S. Using an iPhone for the first time was magic, but also in a way tragic. Holding in my hand for the first time, I had the feeling that life was going to get a lot easier, but also a lot less quaint and charming. These days, I use my phone so often, it’s like a reflex. I put it away, then take it out of my pocket seconds later out of habit. I unlock my screen and flip through my apps just to kill time. It’s easy to forget that my phone used to just be a phone, and I used to say things like “May I ask who is calling?” and “It was too much to text, so I just decided to call you.”