How a morning mishap leads me down the memory lane of simpler times and less stress about the world.
Locked out of the house
After a regular hectic morning trying to get the boys to school on time my wife went back into the house for something and then forgot to give me the house keys. After dropping the kids at school I noticed on the way home I only have my wallet but no phone or keys. On top of that, it was a freezing morning.
My mind started racing and I went to ask the only neighbor with whom we are friendly to call my wife. I don’t remember her number, but they have it on their phone. Unfortunately, they left for work already.
My next thought was to go back to school and ask if they can call my wife since they have her contact info. But before that, I searched my wallet and found her business card with her cell number so I stopped at a neighborhood bakery where they let me call her. She couldn’t leave work, so I had to take a 20 min bus ride to her office… The time it took me to wait for the bus and the ride itself gave me time to reflect on the ways the mobile phone and in particular the smartphone, changed our daily lives.
A smartphone is not just a communication device, but also a tool that helps us navigate the world, check the weather, opening times and schedules, travel information, book rooms, and transportation tickets, find food stores and various services, make notes and pictures, compare prices online, listen to music/podcasts and kill time with games while stuck in a waiting line. How did we live without all that for so long?
The time before mobile phones
I used to go around my hometown on a bike. Armed with a city map that included a list of all the streets with grid coordinates. In about 45 min I could be anywhere I needed to be. I used a house phone to make an appointment and a newspaper to check on opening hours or cinema showings. I carried a notebook and a pencil to make notes. I got the email in the second year of High School at age 16, so I actually preferred face-to-face communication, then email, and only if necessary the phone. Then came ICQ, the first instant messenger that revolutionized the way we used to chat online. And I used to chat online more than I ever did in person or over the phone.
But the main thing was that we had lots of time to reflect on things, ponder about and simply daydream. Life was moving at a different pace and I think we were more at peace with ourselves, not being aware of so many things that were going on around us and the world at large. Even if you followed the current events your sources were newspapers, radio, and TV news that were all carefully curated and filtered with the main purpose to inform. With the fall of Yugoslavia in the summer of 1991, came a new era of privatization of the media and the news. With that came the need to sensationalize in order to attract more readers/listeners/viewers. Suddenly we could read/listen about petty crimes all over, creating a feeling like a world is going to hell in a handbasket.
We also had to remember more details. In school and in our daily lives. Names and frequently used phone numbers for example. I still remember my childhood home phone number (265-548), but I have only a vague idea of my current phone number or my wife’s for that matter. Of course, I changed the number many times during the last 20 years, and honestly, I’m not making an effort, since I have it stored in the contacts. We used to dial the numbers every time, which took a long time with a rotary phone, so we had a lot of practice and the opportunity to memorize the frequently used numbers.
Then came the mobile phone
It was not easy for me to remember the time before I got my first mobile phone back in January 1999 during my second visit to Finland. In Slovenia, at the time you can only buy cell phones as a part of the mobile operator contract. The selection of models was limited and pricey. Then a second mobile operator came to the market and offered a contract to anybody no matter where they got their phone. I got a Nokia 5110 with which I wrote a lot of SMS (text messages) to my Finnish girlfriend. She didn’t have a computer at home, so this was the cheapest and fastest way to communicate. My best experience and a glimpse into the future came on a train trip across Europe (from Slovenia to Austria, Germany, Denmark, and Sweden to Finland). I had with me a pocket map of European trains and a rough idea of where I needed to go. I had an open InterRail ticket, so I could ride any train in 2nd class without additional cost for 3 months.
Since I had no way of knowing if I will be able to charge my phone on the trip, I kept it off and only turned it on once every few hours for a few minutes to receive and send SMS. This is how we kept in touch during my trip, so she would know how I’m progressing. It was a great adventure!
A funny anecdote from that trip happened in Germany. I took a direct train from Ljubljana to Munich. Since I knew only the air travel system I thought I could just ask how to get to Helsinki and they will tell me which train to get and then where to switch to another one. Of course, there’s no direct train to Helsinki (Finland) from Munich, but the woman behind the counter misheard and logically thought I said Heeslingen, a small German town close to Hamburg. So she directed me to a train that will take me there directly. I could not believe my luck, but being a young and inexperienced traveler I also didn’t really question it. Not at first at least. So I followed the route on my map in the booklet and wondered why we were deviating so much to the west of Germany, not going straight up through Nuremberg, but rather through Stuttgart and Frankfurt. Luckily the whole misunderstanding ended up being a slight detour because I would have to get to Hamburg anyway to catch another train to cross the border to Copenhagen via a ferry. Until I saw a train cart going onto a ferry, I wasn’t sure how exactly will I cross the Baltic Sea.
To cross another sea border from Helsingor (Denmark) to Helsinborg (Sweeden) the train went onto a ferry, but immediately after I had to change it (in the middle of the night), because the one I was on, continued to Oslo. That is one of my bigger traveling regrets because I missed the opportunity to visit Oslo in order to meet my girlfriend as soon as possible. On the other hand, I was on a tight budget, so I don’t know if I could afford to stay there. Norway is a notoriously expensive country.
By the end of 1999, I moved to Finland and soon after got a job. Among many perks was an option to upgrade my personal mobile phone every 2 years. So I went with the latest Nokia model 7110 that supported the early version of Internet data transfer WAP. The little scroll button in the middle was very handy to scroll through text-based webpages. The keyboard cover was cool and didn’t really make trouble or fall off after a while. I liked it also because it has a similar design to the other Nokia 8110 model that was used by Keanu Reeves in The Matrix movie.
Since I always loved multimedia and couldn’t resist taking advantage of the next company-supported phone upgrade I went with Nokia 5510. That was a really strange but surprisingly handy hybrid between a mobile phone, FM radio, and an MP3 player with a split QWERTY keyboard for more comfortable typing. Internal memory available for MP3 was 64MB, which was enough for a single music album. In 2003 Nokia released a game system mobile phone hybrid based on this design called N-Gage. I was considering it but then decided to wait a few years more for PlayStation Portable.
Not convinced by the data transfer capability I went back to the basics with my next one Nokia 3210. Until smartphones came to the market, the internet on mobile phones was not usable and quite expensive. Which is typical for early adopters in IT. This model was popular for many years with people who refused to jump onto the smartphone bandwagon. The main argument used to be that the phones are meant to be used for talking and maybe messaging. Everything else is not necessary. I refused to pay a high price for mobile internet until I moved back to Slovenia in 2014. At that point 3G coverage became widespread and the price was reasonable. I used this Nokia for many years and I still have it in a box somewhere in a working condition.
My first smartphone was the iPhone which as a mobile device was a huge surprise to everyone at the time of release. Simply because until then the world of mobile phones was ruled by Nokia, Ericsson, Samsung, and Motorola. Sales of Nokia phones were far beyond anybody else for years. They tried to innovate with mentioned N-Gage but failed because they were focused for too long on the Symbian OS until it was too late and Apple took over.
iPhone was the phone I wanted but was beyond my budget. I kept dreaming about it and finally, I got it as a gift from my father during a summer vacation in Slovenia in 2009. That happened to be around the release of the 3rd iPhone model 3GS, but I got the previous one, 3G with 8GB memory. I tinkered with it a lot. At some point, I did a jailbreak and got a bunch of games for it. I still have it and the kids sometimes play with it. Since the iOS is outdated by now, the YouTube barely works through the Safari browser, but as a music player works just fine.
Even though iPhones are still pricey I appreciated the quality of the hardware and regular iOS updates. I’m sure Android phones would not last me as long. After almost 4 years of using the iPhone 3G, I bought iPhone 4S, then the 5S 3 years later, and this year SE. I like the fact I can use the durable protective case I had on 5S now on the SE model, but my eyes are starting to struggle with the small size of the screen. I just hope I can afford the next model when the time comes.