In honor of the fortieth birthday of the first cell phone call, let's acknowledge all that this device has done for us.
Yesterday the cell phone turned forty. It was in 1973 when researchers at Motorola finally successfully made the first cell phone call. Since then, the device has gone from a device of luxury (the first consumer model would set you back approximately $9000 in today's currency) to an essential part of how we communicate. Going off of the 2011 numbers, the most recent to which we have access, the UN found that there were roughly 6 billion cell phone subscriptions in that year—that's roughly 86% of the world's population. Though the findings likely don't directly corresponded to how many people own use a cell phone—some people have multiple subscriptions—it's still an impressively high number for a technology that's only forty years old. China comprised one billion of those subscriptions; India has likely surpassed one billion subscriptions by now as well.
From the first readily available models in the late '90s and early '00s, cell phones have altered all sorts of relationships. Worried parents could simply call their errant teenagers. Jealous lovers could simply call their partner to see what was holding them up at the office. As more people possessed cell phones, our feeling that anyone was accessible at all times necessarily grew. Our growing immediate access to those in our lives began to breed a certain kind of integration that was clearly not present before.
It's only been twelve years since the introduction of a smartphone with limited web browsing capability in the United States. Incredibly, it's only been five years since the first iPhone was launched. Once the internet was easily accessible on cell phones, our possible interactions increased exponentially. Social media apps and free texting have revolutionized what it means to stay in contact with someone.
Phones both facilitate constant connection—you can call or text anyone, anywhere, anytime—and encourage passive absorption of the details of your family and friends' lives—you might know everything your spouse did in a day, what she ate, how horrible traffic was on the way to work, without ever speaking to her. Has this hyper-connectivity altered how we date, love, and have sex? I would argue that it has.
In a 2010 study conducted at the University of Michigan, researchers found "a positive link exists between the amount of time spent communicating with someone on the phone and the amount of face-to-face time with that person." So we're not substituting calls and texts for real-life interaction; instead these interactions likely provide another dimension to our relationships.
It's rote to say that online dating changed things; its prevalence has ushered in an entire generation that views meeting a partner online without the stigma previously associated with the online pool. But phone apps added other dimensions: GPS location and faster, slicker interfaces. App developers continue to churn out new, simpler, faster ways to meet a date (or mate) at our leisure. We can use Grindr to find a casual sex partner or quick date (on our block). Tinder represents an even faster format—a better means to sift through the seemingly infinite information (or people) we interact—here we only need to look at a single picture, say yes or no, then move on.
Dating apps that rely on GPS location take certain the advantages of online dating—the seemingly infinite number of possible partners—but add a real-time element that appeals to our sense of adventure and immediacy. Now, not only can you find a date with a man who lives three blocks over, you can go on a date with the guy three tables over from you at the bar you're currently in.
When a technology that facilitates and augments communication becomes so prevalent as to be essentially integrated into culture, then it's going to change how we relate socially. In just a brief forty years, cell phones have evolved from clunky novelties to essential tools for day-to-day living. As new technologies like Google Glass reimagine what a cell phone is and does, we'll only grow more connected. Cell phones alter how we interact, who we interact with, how we love and who we love. Here's to another forty years of what looks like progress.