The Washington Post

Gene Weingarten: Our columnist hits his ‘cell by’ date and finally gets a smartphone


I just became one of the last people on the planet to get a smartphone. Somewhere in the Western Sahara a Bedouin tribesman is sitting on a camel, reading this column on his iPhone, laughing at my primitive self.

I can’t explain why I held out so long, except that a sour suspicion of technology is in my genes. For more than a decade, my parents refused to get a color TV on the grumpy assumption that new-fangled inventions, in their early years, are too filled with bugs to be worthwhile. So I was almost out of my teens (and into the 1970s) before I realized that the Emerald City was green and the Horse of a Different Color was not just an ordinary horse.

Gene Weingarten is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and writes "Below the Beltway," a weekly humor column that is nationally syndicated. View Archive

My late arrival to the iPhone has given me a certain perspective on technology that you likely no longer have. By now you are taking things for granted that, to me, are still kind of unnerving. You have become accustomed, for example, to seeing the world in absurd miniature. Not me, not yet. Last night, I watched Derek Jeter at bat and, bewildered, looked around the room for something comparably sized. It turns out Derek was exactly the size and dimensions of FDR’s nose on a dime.

You accept this. I will, too, soon. Just as I will soon not worry about a machine that can reliably identify me by my thumbprint, the whorls of which are presumably now also captured somewhere else for future reference.

I long ago came to terms with how cellphones have made some other technologies obsolete; I had already jettisoned my wristwatch and alarm clock. Now, I can pretty much toss my TV. My Magellan GPS. Flashlight. Digital camera. Kindle. Scanner. Skype. IPod. Photocopier. Voice recorder. Refrigerator. (Okay, not yet on that last one. But soon. My tech-savvy friend Steve has a smartphone that’s older than mine. I just now told him that my new one offers, for $4.99, an app for a competent virtual colonoscopy. He was intrigued. So was my friend Dave, who is a stand-up comic. I was lying, but the point is, they both found it plausible. Anything is possible.)

(Illustration by Eric Shansby)

Has there ever been a next-generation improvement in a product that created such a quantum leap in capabilities, almost overnight? It’s as though right after the Model A, Ford came out with a molecular personal teleporter.

I’ve been talking with friends, all of whom of course are more experienced than I with smartphones, and I’m learning about actual apps that can do absolutely amazing things. One listens to whatever music you might be hearing — say, in a restaurant — and tells you what it is. One prevents you from drunk-dialing by putting calls through only if your hand is steady. One allows you to thump your phone against a cantaloupe to learn if it is ripe. One screens the movie you are watching and tells you when are the best times to go pee without missing something important. And when you get into the bathroom, there’s another one that makes the sound of hand dryers roaring, to cover up the sounds you are actually making.

The most amazing thing I have learned, though, involves yet one more technology that smartphones are slowly making obsolete. It turns out that because of improved texting, and Snapchat, and phone-borne e-mails, a lot fewer people are actually making calls, and this trend is accelerating. Cellphones are making cellphones obsolete.

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