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Are we so attached to our cell phones that we are lost without them?
SHNS illustration/The Sacramento Bee by Charles Waltmire
Are we so attached to our cell phones that we are lost without them?

Cell phones set us free ... right?
How ‘convenience’ turned into connection obsession

By Melissa Dahl
Sacramento Bee

When Martin Cooper made the first cell phone call in 1973, our future connection obsession was born.

Ten years later, the first U.S. wireless customers dropped $3,995 for the 10-inch, 28-ounce clunker (nicknamed “the Brick”) created by Cooper and his team at Motorola. With it came the promise that now anytime, anywhere, we could reach out and touch someone. (Any time, that is, that didn’t exceed the Brick’s half-hour battery life.)

Today, Cooper’s vision has been transformed into a camera. A calendar. A calculator. An alarm clock. A timepiece. A Web browser. An MP3 player. And ... a Breathalyzer? (Seriously — the LG LP4100. Google it.)

But really, the connection’s all that matters.

Martin Cooper, meet 21-year-old Daniel Tapia of Sacramento, Calif., who must be connected to his friends at all times. His greatest fear? Missing a text from his buddies on the weekend. No signal, no fun.

Mr. Cooper, meet 25-year-old Gitzel Vargas of Natomas, Calif., who must be connected to her family at all times. Her greatest fear? Dropping a call from her sister, who’s studying in Mexico. No signal, no peace of mind.

And then, Mr. Cooper, there’s 24-year-old Avi Ehrlich of Sacramento, who must be connected to clients at all times. His greatest fear? Losing reception and thereby losing one of the musicians on his independent record label. No signal, no company.

They’re connected, you’re connected, we’re all connected. Our Razrs, Treos and Nokias are our links to advice, amusement, attention, distraction, gossip, comfort, family, friendship.

A bit of history: Analysts in 1983 predicted that by 2000, there would be 900,000 wireless users in the United States. Only business types — executives, sales staff — were expected to embrace the idea of perpetual connection. But hey, who wants to be left out? Everybody wanted in on the mobile lifestyle.

Doctors. Lawyers. Realtors. Plumbers. Shoppers. Bicyclists. Teenagers. Eight-year-olds. There were more than 100 million wireless users by the end of 2000, and 229 million at the end of last year.

Now we text while we drive, we talk while we shop, we call each other 14 times to hyper-coordinate a lunch date. It must be asked, Mr. Cooper — how could you do this to us? Where are you now, and can you hear us?

Because sometimes, our cell phones fail us.

No signal, nobody loves you.

Rumor has it, Mr. Cooper, that your inspiration for the cellular phone came from “Star Trek,” but Capt. Kirk’s communicator always connected him to rescuers. It never gave him this much trouble.

About a one-fourth of all wireless calls have at least one problem, says a 2006 study by J.D. Power and Associates. Dropped calls. Disconnected calls. Static. Interference. Voice distortion. Echoes.

“Ever watch ‘24’?” He’s always got perfect cell coverage,” says Tom Farley, a telephone historian who lives in West Sacramento. “It’s the most irritating thing. He never drops a call.”

Oh, but we do. We plead with our phones to stay connected. We hold them at ridiculous angles; we press them tightly to our ears.

How did we get here? Not that we’re pointing fingers, but if we were, they’re aimed at you, Martin Cooper. So where are you now?

“I’m not sure I appreciate the finger-pointing,” answers Cooper.

We find the father of the cell phone — the man, the myth, the legend — on vacation in Vail, Colo. He’s 79 now, owns six cell phones, carries three and pays the bills for 20 (sons, daughters, grandkids — it’s a mega family plan). Of course, he is talking to us on one of those cell phones.

So, Mr. Cooper, do you understand our obsession, our need to have a signal?

Does he ever.

“When you’ve got that phone, you feel connected, you feel part of a group,” says Cooper. “Who’s the group? It’s everyone in the world, on your cell phone.”

So he’s an engineer and a philosopher. Tell us more.

“Suddenly you’re disconnected — oh my God, it’s a trauma,” he says. “Now all of a sudden, you feel ostracized. It’s like when you were in high school, you’re the person that nobody talked to.”

Exactly. You get it, Mr. Cooper.

But this is where father-of-the cell-phone parts company with country-obsessed-with-the-cell-phone.

Cooper is still founding new companies. Six months ago, he debuted the Jitterbug, a cell phone for seniors that doesn’t text, take pictures, play music or change ring tones. One version of the phone has only three buttons, programmed to call 911, an operator or one relative or friend.

How un-cell-phone like, Mr. Cooper.

“My rule is, if you want to build something that does all things for all people, it’s not going to work real well,” Cooper says.

Wise words.

Because what we really care about is the conversation or the prospect of the conversation. That perpetual link. That digital umbilical cord.

Because the connection is all that matters.

We are connected; therefore, we are.

Melissa Dahl can be reached
at mdahl@sacbee.com.

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