I feel morally obliged to constantly remind you — and myself — that the world continually changes. And it’s now changing at a rate that no one could have dreamed of as recently as the 1970s.
The cellphone is one of an endless number of hi-tech toys that are changing at an accelerating pace. Most of us are old enough to remember when owning a cellphone was like carrying around a brick all day. This wasn’t fifty years ago; it was the mid-eighties! Today, by contrast, the smallest cellphone can fit in your shirt pocket.
I decided to take a look at the first article I ever wrote about cellular telephone back in the June 1983 issue of my newsletter The Tortoise Report. It was like being in a time capsule and revisiting the Stone Age. In the article, I wrote that cellular telephone service was frequently referred to as “cellular mobile radio” or just “cellular radio.” When was the last time you heard anyone use those terms?
While cellular was just beginning to take off, China was still pretty red, because it was fourteen years away from taking over its gateway to capitalism — Hong Kong. Since Great Britain handed over that crown jewel of capitalism to China’s oligarchy on July 1, 1997, the country has been on a fast track to capitalistic dominance. By my calculations, at its current rate of buying up U.S. debt, China should officially own America at 9:37 p.m. on May 12, 2033 — unless, of course, India takes title to it first.
Oh, sure, mainland China’s oligarchy still pretends to be communist, but that’s only an excuse to hold onto power. And who can blame them? Can you imagine what an ego booster it must be to boss around 1.3 billion people every day? It kind of reminds me of Woody Allen’s suggestion that the airlines should allow first-class passengers to go into the coach section of the plane every hour or so and randomly mess up the hair of every coach passenger … just for the fun of it.
But the truth of the matter is that by opening the door to capitalism, the ruling class in China has probably sealed its eventual demise. Today, less than ten years after pulling Hong Kong into its clutches, China has gone from 50 million telephone users to 500 million! And people with telephones tend to be more difficult to rule than those who communicate by carrier pigeon.
What this means is that 40 percent of China’s once impoverished population now has telephone service. Even more remarkable is that 300 million of those telephones are cellphones, and that number is projected to double by 2010.
(Isn’t it amazing how those nasty little “sweatshops” have a way of improving the lives of the very people who produce the sweat, notwithstanding the protestations of self-anointed, clueless moralists from Manhattan’s Upper East Side to Hollywood?)
Yes, things change. And here in the U.S., not only has cellphone size and versatility changed, but so has our reliance on cellular service. Nearly 10 percent of households that have cellular phones no longer have land-line service at all. Talk about change; there was a time when you couldn’t even sign up for cellular service if you didn’t have a home telephone number.
Now, the big question is: Will someone step forward and figure out a way to improve the wretched technology known as cellular? To paraphrase and parody the words of Winston Churchill on democracy, cellular service is absolutely terrible — poor reception, dropped calls, awkward to program — but it’s the best alternative to the land-line telephone that anyone has been able to come up with to date.