How the Phone Became a Feature not a Function

Image by Stefan Kuhn from Pixabay

In the very early days of the telephone, when they were just starting to be used in business, there would typically be just one telephone in the office. It would sit on a table at the front of the room that was filled with desks for the clerks doing the administrative work. A manager wouldn’t even think about having a telephone in his office! One person would be assigned to answer the phone. When it rang, they’d get up and the room would go silent. Can you imagine being that one who had to stand up and everyone watched and listened to you? Talk on a phone then was very ritualized as well. In how you answered it and the formality of the language used during the discussion. The telephone then and for decades to come, was a function of life.

Image by janeb13 from Pixabay

Today, if and when you actually get a call on the computer in your pocket, you may not even say “hello” because we can see who’s calling. For years after caller ID was introduced when those little digital screens arrived on phones, we would pretend we didn’t see who was calling. It was a cultural ritual that survived for many years. Today, we all know that we know who’s calling and we’ve dropped that pretence. The actual phone part of smartphones has become a feature now and less of a function.

This past week, the last public payphone was removed in New York City. Other towns and cities have or are, doing the same. It is not unusual that even a homeless person will have some sort of mobile phone. Mobile phones became so proliferate in Kenyan society that the Kenyan government with Safaricom and Vodafone created the Mpesa, a way to bank on mobile devices, not necessarily smartphones. On a business and research trip to the Philippines several years ago, just before smartphones entered the market, I was astounded to see kids who would scrub off the numbers on the phone pad and were able to text without them. It was a point of pride to be able to do this. In Finland, I was able to pay for my coffee via my phone well before it was possible in North America.

Image: NY Times — May 2022, last telephone booth in NYC removed.

Today, research has shown that our smartphones are rarely less than a metre or 3 feet from us. Rarely does a technology play such a vital role in human society, or cause significant adaptations. We may well compare the advancement of the phone to the invention of the wheel, the harnessing of fire, electricity and the hand axe.

Understanding the evolution of the phone from an in-place technology, where you had to go to where the telephone was to interact with it, to the smartphone of today, is a great way to look at how humans adapt to a technology and how we too adapt the technology to us. One wonders why we call it a “phone” at all today.

Humans use their smartphones for just about everything except actually talking to each other by voice. Americans spend an average of 2.5 hours/day on their phone; shopping, texting, social media use, browsing and listening to music. Yes, smartphones are computers, but they’re really much more than that. A phone is no longer a phone. But we don’t call them handheld computers or even computers. Why?

We simply haven’t invented a word for what they are that has caught on at scale. Science Fiction writers have called them a number of things as their capabilities are far more than today. So we’ve actually morphed the meaning of the word phone. Chances are, when you think of a phone today, you don’t think of that weird rotary dial device hanging on a wall or the clunky touch-tone phone sitting on a counter. More traditional phones are still used today, but in more limited ways and settings; offices, retail stores, industrial facilities. It is likely these uses too will slowly fade away. We already see smartphones being used in retail settings with the stores back-end app loaded onto an employees phone where they can check inventory and even process transactions. Ever bought anything at an Apple store?

Phones played a vital role in connecting the world. They’re playing an ever more vital role in our digital world and will likely be one of the most important technologies for the foreseeable future. Humans ability to communicate is a key survival trait of our species, as well as our adaptability and storytelling. It is how we form the very fabric of our cultures and societies. The smartphone isn’t just a device to communicate, it is fast becoming a tool of human survival, a key tool to adapting to life in the Cognitive Age we are now entering. But the actual phone part of the phone of today is no longer a function, it is a feature. What should we call smartphones? Or will we, more than likely, just keep calling it a phone?

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