When a Phone Is No Longer a Phone

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Photo by Tyler Lastovich on Pexels.com

We need a new term for the devices many (if not most) of us carry around in our pockets. I have an iPhone, as do the other members of the family. Several times a day, I hear things like, “Has anyone seen my phone?” “There’s an alarm going off on your phone.” “Mom, you just got a message on your phone.” “Put your phones away, it’s not device time.” However, I can’t remember the last time I heard someone say, “I’m on a call,” or “you’re phone is ringing.” We use these devices constantly, but we rarely use them as phones in the classical sense.

Thinking about this, I checked the call history on my own phone. There are dozens of “missed” calls because I don’t answer calls from numbers I don’t recognize. In the month of September (it being the evening of September 30 as I write this) I made 4 calls from my phone. I received two calls from numbers that I recognized and answered. 6 calls in a month. Meanwhile, I use my “phone”constantly for reading email, text messages, as well as audio books, reading newspapers, keeping up with social media, and occasionally watching shows like the new Foundation series on Apple TV+, or Ted Lasso.

The “reading” screen on my “phone.”

As someone who spans the digital divide, a phone, to me, is the thing on the wall in the kitchen with the cord that always gets tangled and can never be untangled, though which you talk to friends and family at a distance. For my kids, a phone is where you watch YouTube videos and from which you make TikTok videos, as well as play Minecraft or Roblox. It seems to me, we need a new name, something that better represents what this device is.

Sometime in the late 1990s (I think) someone coined the term “personal digital assistant”, or PDA for short. Unfortunately, PDA became a popular shortening of “public display of affection” which makes it an awkward candidate for an alternate name for a phone.

“Smart” phone is frequently used. I see references to smart phone everywhere, but this doesn’t work for me because it seems patently silly. The phone is not smart. It may make its users seem smart, but let’s not kid anyone that it is the phone that is smart. Then, too, “smart phone” still refers to “phone” which is the thing I am trying to avoid.

Taking some inspiration from the science fiction world, “brain pal” came to mind. Brain pal, of course, comes from Old Man’s War by John Scalzi. For something I carry around in my pocket, however, brain pal doesn’t seem to fit all that well.

What about “computer”? After all, a phone really is just a computer, all miniaturized down into a hand-sized package? These days, however, phones often do more than computers. The take photos and videos; they have all kinds of biometric capabilities. They can detect changes in surroundings, can identify their location on the globe, and even their altitude above or below sea-level. “Computer” seems a little too mundane.

When all is said and done, “phone” is likely the best we can do, and I suppose we are stuck with it. Rather than change the term, we just have to understand that the meaning has evolved, and we need to evolve along with it. We did it with albums. An album used to to be a record, a flat disk that you played with a needle on a turntable. Albums had tracks that ran around them and represented individual songs. We still use the term “album” although we usually don’t mean the disk, and we use the term “track” to mean a digitally stored piece of music. Those terms have evolved into what they are today and are commonly accepted. I guess I’ll need to do the same for “phone.”

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6 comments

      1. Thanks for making me dig into this a bit more! My German is fairly elementary, so I can offer “handlich”, maybe? I did manage to find this article 1 summarizing the origin of the term, which offers gems like “Funkgeräte” as well.

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