The child of an engineer and a computer programmer, I was the first one of my friends to get my very own personal computer: a blue iMac—like from the commercials—cementing my friendship with at least three girls who were way more popular than I was. While my parents likely hoped I’d use the computer as an encyclopedia and to print out my schoolwork, for me it was another way to keep in constant conversation with any human—or bot—I could find. Before AOL Instant Messenger existed the Internet was basically the Wild West; my friends and I would log into chat rooms and delight in the ability to have banal conversations online, with what we assumed were toothsome boys our age and not, as it is more statistically likely, 45-year-old basement dwellers.
When I wasn’t skirting predators on the World Wide Web, I was chatting on my lime-green cordless phone on my own private line. If it sounds like I was spoiled, it’s because I was. In 1998, having a private line was basically the gold standard of pre-teendom. I didn’t think life could get any better than being able to call people from the comfort of my bedroom. And then, in 2001, at the age of 14, I got my first cell phone and the world opened up even more.
In the sixteen years that have followed, mobile technology has expanded in ways few people could have imagined. Our smartphones have replaced countless devices and appliances and razed entire industries. They answer our questions in seconds and guide us when we’re lost, geographically or existentially. Seventy-seven percent of Americans now own smartphones, up from 66% last year, and 35% in 2011. Their rapid evolution continues to change the ways we think about connection and convenience, and also makes it easy to forget how recently we walked through life without the immediacy these devices afford us.
I wanted to see where looking back through the flip phones and sliders of my past would take me. Each of the clunky, outdated behemoths below was a notch in my timeline, radical in its own way.
Model: V-Tech 9111 // The Non-Cell Phone
While not technically a mobile phone, it was attached to my body via the back pocket of my hip huggers, and I carried it into every room of the house as well as outdoors into our yard, testing the limits of its connectivity.
One time the mom of a boy I liked called my parents and told them we had to keep our phone conversations to a minimum of two hours a day so that he could do his homework. My unfettered access to call time also enabled me to attempt to steal not one, but two of my friends’ boyfriends by calling them under the guise of discussing their “relationships.” Woof.
Model: Siemens C45 // The First
My friends teased me mercilessly about this phone because Siemens sounds like semen and we were 14. When you turned the phone on, the screen glowed orange and a smiley face would pop up to greet you. It was a frowny face when you turned it off. Because you had to charge it basically 23 hours a day and the only outlet in my room was on the other side from my bed, I remember getting out of bed to see if anyone had sent me an “SMS” at random hours of the night (they hadn’t).
Model: Nokia 3310 // The Classic
Who didn’t have this sturdy Nokia phone? Rumor has it this baby is set to re-release in 2017, to the delight of Snake enthusiasts everywhere. I’m pretty sure I owe the C I got in Chemistry my sophomore year of high school to this piece of plastic, but I also got a very high score in Snake. So..
I also recall having to push my nails into the buttons to dial after a few months, the physicality of the structure so obviously the sum of its parts.
Model: Nokia 3200 with interchangeable covers // Feat of Visual Engineering
I tried desperately to find a picture of the actual interchangeable cover I had for this upgraded version of the basic Nokia phone but I couldn’t, probably because it was an unauthorized cover I bought at a boardwalk stand in Ocean City. I’ve got one word for you though: FLAMES. Fun fact: constantly changing the cover on this phone led to debris accumulation; it basically became a dirt factory that I held up to my face all day.
The biggest difference—outside of the unbelievable aesthetic—was that this phone came with its very own camera. As a seasoned photographer after a year of high school photography that I spent outside smoking cigarettes, I was ready to explore this new medium. The pictures I took included, but were not limited to, my feet, my hands, and an eyeball. That’s it. Because 3 pictures was all the storage it could handle.
Model: Motorola Razr // This phone came in pink
I know you were waiting for this one. This phone was a game-changer. I was thrilled when I finally got this sleek design but also knew that my excitement had to be partially ironic in order to continue being as cool as I thought I was. I perfected the one hand flip and relished clicking it shut. I was Paris Hilton.
Incidentally, 2007 was the first year that Americans sent and received more text messages than phone calls each month. Perhaps that’s why this is the phone I remember sending them from for the first time, which begs the question, what the hell was I using all those other phones for?
Model: Verizon Pantech Jest // I was eligible for an upgrade
I genuinely thought this was the coolest phone ever, until it arrived and I realized how crappy it was. Nevertheless, since this was when I got my first “real” job out of college; I’d slip this little pebble into my stiff Target-bought khakis with grit and determination. While the home screen boasted “Email” access and something called a “Social Beat,” you needed a stable internet connection and 20-25 minutes just to log on to www.google.com and type in “beer store.”
Model: Verizon LG ENV //Groundhog Computer
The folks who designed this phone clearly thought they were onto something, envisioning a groundhog-sized person cracking it open to type at his groundhog-sized desk. Oh look, a shift key! In my memory this weighed 8 pounds.
Model: iPhone 4//The Future
And here we are. When I finally made the transition to the iPhone I felt like I’d been launched into outer space. My first grainy Instagram photos are all in Kelvin, i.e. orange and terrible, and this was when my private selfie habit really reared its ugly head. I accidentally smashed the screen on this after having it for approximately one month, wanted to commit harakiri, and have since protected my phone with industrial strength covers and screen protectors like it’s going out of style. So here’s where it ends, because I refuse to include the subsequent iPhones I’ve owned because they are all essentially the same.