Academic journal article Journal of American & Comparative Cultures

America's Cellular Telephone Obsession: New Geographies of Personal Communication

Academic journal article Journal of American & Comparative Cultures

America's Cellular Telephone Obsession: New Geographies of Personal Communication

Article excerpt

Every one of us has dreams in progress-yearnings whose fulfillment may lie in that voice at the other end of the phone's ring.

-Paul Levinson, The Soft Edge: A Natural History and Future of the Information Revolution

Not long ago I stood at a scenic overlook in Canyonlands National Park near Moab, Utah watching a man on his cell phone describe the scene below. Seconds after completing the call he was dialing again, repeating his account of sparse vegetation, deeply incised canyons and vivid red and brown colors. From snarled urban highways and suburban shopping malls to airport waiting areas and golf courses, the cellular phone has become an icon for America's love affair with mobility and connectivity. Between 1995 and 2001, nearly 82 million people became cell phone users, increasing wireless subscriptions in the U.S. to over 116 million (CTIA). Heated competition for subscribers has led to marketing campaigns claiming clearer reception, less expensive "airtime" charges, or extended features such as call forwarding, email, paging, or Internet access. Even children's toys are emulating the wireless craze with make-believe phones included in McDonalds Happy Meals and TV commercials promoting tiny cellular phones that come with Cabbage Patch dolls. When first introduced in the early 1980s, the high cost of cellular service meant that the majority of wireless phones were used for business purposes. However, within the last ten years declining costs have contributed to cell phone ownership that transcends income, occupation, and age. With the number of worldwide subscribers approaching one billion, the cell phone is among the world's most successful consumer products.

The revolution in cell use has influenced the lifestyles and communication patterns of Americans in several ways as demonstrated by the growing number of cell users who have elected to go without wired phone service in their homes. Most significantly, mobility and access have brought new possibilities for personal communication. As suggested by Wooldridge the wireless telephone has effectively dispersed personal communication, blurring boundaries between private and public spaces and changing patterns of business and personal communication. The explosion in cellular use has also impacted the cultural landscape with tens of thousands of cell towers and antennas planned or in use to serve geographically expanding wireless networks. Despite rapid acceptance of cellular technology among most Americans, the social and cultural impacts of wireless telephone have attracted little scholarly attention (Katz and Aspden).

A Brief History of Mobile Communication

The promise of a mobile device for personal communication has captured the imagination of Americans for years. Comic book character Dick Tracy used a tiny wristwatch phone to communicate while Don Adams on TV's Get Smart popularized the "shoe phone." More closely resembling today's flip-open cellular phones were hand-held communicators used on the TV series Star Trek. Although short-lived, the Citizens Band (CB) radio craze of the late 1960s and early 1970s demonstrated the public's enthusiasm for inexpensive mobile communication. CB became the wireless equivalent of the rural telephone "party line" with 23 and later 40 channels enabling voice communication from moving automobiles or fixed locations. However, the limited range of CBs along with their unregulated use and inability to offer privacy made them poor substitutes for telephones.

Although not wireless, an early "car telephone" can be credited to Lars Magnus Ericsson, founder of Ericsson Telephone (Farley). Touring the Swedish countryside in his horseless carriage in 1910, Ericsson and his wife would stop near overhead telephone poles and extend a long stick with a hook over each wire. With a few cranks on the phone's dynamo handle Ericsson could alert a nearby telephone exchange operator to assist in initiating a call. …

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