When a Cell Phone is More Than a Cell Phone

The other day, I was cleaning out some drawers and found my first cell phone, which looks like a fossil from the days when dinosaurs roamed the Earth. It’s almost comically simple, featuring a number pad, a "yes" and a "no" button, and not much else. It’s thick, homely and hopelessly rudimentary.

Boy, do I miss it.

That phone was useless except for one purpose: making telephone calls. Although I’m embarrassed to admit this, calling is the only thing I need a cell phone to do. But it appears to be the least important function of a modern cell phone — which can deliver text messages, provide Internet access, download music, take photos, record dictation, sequence the human genome, translate the Bhagavad-Gita and feed the dog.

But just because a device is capable of doing all these things doesn’t mean the owner can actually persuade it to do them. I got a new cell phone recently and found myself thoroughly flummoxed by its complexity. My first cell phone had a couple of pages of instructions to help me use it. This one came with a manual and a CD-ROM.

It wasn’t a phone. It was a graduate program. Or a second career. It left me bewildered, despondent and, by the way, unable to talk on the phone.

So I returned it and got another one. The new one has an instruction manual that is 206 pages long — nearly twice the length of all four Gospels in the New Testament. We can all be grateful that Providence didn’t outsource His good news to computer programmers in Silicon Valley. In that case, the Bible would be the size of Trump Tower.

Maybe I could wade through the manual and absorb all the knowledge needed to make full use of my new possession. But by then, the phone itself would have become obsolete. At that point, I would have to buy a more advanced model, with an instruction manual made up of a dozen volumes, like an encyclopedia, and start over.

For now, I’ve learned how to use my phone to make calls. Getting them is trickier. Sometimes I inadvertently silence the ringer. Sometimes I unwittingly disable the vibrate function. Sometimes I answer a call only to cut it off by accident.

When it does work, the phone not only rings, but announces: "You have an incoming call!" Now, I’m one of those people who naturally interpret a ringing telephone to mean I have an incoming call. But the people who designed this phone didn’t trust me to grasp that basic signal.

So they included an oral declaration to leave no room for misunderstanding. But the same people who think I’m too dim to make sense of a ring think I’m smart enough to master all 5,783 of the functions outlined in the user’s manual.

This phone is about 1 percent essentials and 99 percent glitter and tinsel. For example, it provides the time of day in a digital format, but it also has a little clock with hands that go around and around. Why not an electronic sundial, while we’re at it?

The main menu displays an assortment of mysterious icons, some of which I can’t describe, much less interpret. One of the few I recognize features a hammer and a screwdriver. Try as I might, I can’t get the phone to turn a screw, though it’s reasonably suitable for driving nails. Somehow, though, I suspect I’m missing the point.

But why is it my job to see the point of all these extraneous features? The makers of my phone, after all, seem to have missed the point of a phone. All I want is a device that lets me talk to someone who is not in my physical presence, and maybe store a few phone numbers. But the designers were so intent on loading it up with a browser, a picture viewer, a datebook, a security system and a microwave oven that they make me yearn for a piece of string and a pair of tin cans.

There is a magazine I see at the grocery checkout called "Real Simple." I have yet to see one called "Real Complicated." Yet for some reason, the people who create our gadgets seem to think we can’t get enough of complexity.

If you figure out why that is, call me. By then, maybe I’ll have figured out how to answer.

This column was originally published in April 2005.