I'm certainly not an uber-geek, but I spend a lot of time with computers and I teach a course about how computers and communications affect society, so in theory I should be an expert on things technological. But every once in a while there are hints of cracks in the facade. This year they've converged on a pervasive technology where I've clearly fallen way behind.
In July there was a story of a guy cheating on his wife and trading hot text messages with his girlfriend via cell phone. He decided to upgrade and sold the old one (the phone, not the girlfriend) on eBay, where the buyer, who was doing a study about what information remains on secondhand cell phones, discovered the messages. One imagines that the guy might be a bit worried that his wife will find out.
The story was a great example for the first lecture of my class, illustrating how technology can have utterly unexpected consequences. For me it was intriguing on several fronts (leaving aside how satisfying text-message sex might be): Why would the messages be stored on the phone, and how many could it hold anyway?
My class right now is in Peyton 145, a decent-enough lecture room compared to most, in an almost unknown building just east of the tortured metal of the new science library. One thing that Peyton 145 has going for or against it, depending on your point of view, is that there's cell phone coverage in the room. This is a new experience — my previous classes have mostly been in the basement of Friend, which is still mercifully beyond the reach of Verizon, T-Mobile and the rest.
At the beginning of one lecture, someone found a cell phone on the floor, presumably dropped during the previous class. I left it on the table at the front of the room, figuring that its owner would eventually retrace his or her steps. Silly me — there's a much more obvious solution if one is tech savvy. Twenty minutes into the hour it rang, and when I answered, a female voice said "Do you have my phone?"
I worked for many years for AT&T, the company that invented the cell phone and that, famously, believed the consulting firm that advised them in 1983 that there would never be much of a market for a portable phone. AT&T subsequently went through grim times, including being bought out, but the consulting firm continues to thrive. Draw your own conclusions, though it does suggest there's no need to be right if you're convincing.
At AT&T I even worked for a time on software for figuring out the best places to put cell phone equipment, so perhaps it's a kind of rough justice that my own cell phones have never worked very well. The campus is full of students permanently on the phone. The highways are dangerously crowded with idiots blathering at 75 miles an hour. In the city, schizophrenics talking to themselves are vastly outnumbered by hands-free cell phone users, acting just as oddly but providing cover for the truly disturbed. My phone, however, didn't work at home, in my office or anywhere else. The final straw came last month when I spent three days in midtown New York and was unable to make a single call.
Thus it was that I found myself exploring the cell phone stores that have sprung up like Starbucks on every corner and in every mall. Salespeople were always polite but visibly astonished at the antiquity of my phone (bought in 2000, shortly after the end of the Jurassic period) and my usage pattern (rarely more than one minute per month), and it was hard to find common ground. I just want to make occasional calls. What would I do with a "basic" phone that only has Bluetooth, a video camera, voice dialing, downloadable ringtones, an Internet browser and calling plans that begin at 700 minutes a month?
In the end, I bought a new phone that appears to have most of the above, though I have yet to plow through the 120-page instruction manual to be sure. It lets me make phone calls, but it often doesn't work in my office and barely in my home. It takes pictures but refuses to send them anywhere. And it costs more. So I am now less ignorant of this brave new world but no more happy in it. I have no desire to emulate the multitude whose phones have been surgically attached to their ears so they can talk 24/7, but it sure would be nice to have a phone that works. Brian Kernighan is a professor in the Department of Computer Science and is a Forbes faculty adviser. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.