The Golden Age

By Douglas Rushkoff. Published in The Feature on 18 February 2004

Don’t take your handheld for granted. This sorry decade may just be remembered as the ‘golden age’ of wireless devices.

Sure, it’s easy to poke fun at the design gaffs and interface inconsistencies on our current cell phones and PDA’s. But what if this is as good as it gets?

Tube radios and amplifiers probably seemed positively monstrous and utterly undependable to generations who were awaiting the carefree and cooler operating transistor. But by the time transistors were being replaced by microchips, audiophiles were already collecting tube equipment for its warmer sound and gorgeous burled wood cases.

These days, transistor components are the collectibles, exhibiting workmanship and containing materials - even just high-quality plastics - that seem impossibly solid by today’s standards. An old Philco or Motorola clock radio offers more than nostalgia; it seems to represent a golden age in appliance manufacturing.

Indeed, here in the United States, the 1950’s and 60’s were the GE era. It seemed America was on the cusp of consumer utopia. Our manufacturing processes had reached an apex, and the companies that had figured out how to make TV and radio work - RCA, Motorola, Zenith, Philco, and GE - were the very same companies producing the appliances we bought to enjoy these technologies. Our homes were filled with originals.

Suburbs were built around not only the automobile, but also the television, refrigerator, and washing machine, which all - for better and for worse - allowed people to do their entertaining, food storage, and cleaning right in the house. Our appliances made us self-sufficient. The post-war American dream seemed to be embodied by these solid metal, wood and Bakelite electronics - so much so that generations of younger people now collect these items on Ebay, whether they work or not, as a testament to the (perhaps mythical) age of family, innocence and optimism associated with the post-War economic and baby booms.

For within a decade of this Golden Age, companies all over the world were producing cheap knock-offs of the classic appliances. Sure, this meant more people could afford them, but it also led the major manufacturers to adopt cheaper standards. Then the mass-produced printed circuit board and microchip hit the market, and all hell broke loose. Yes, in many respects these are superior technologies to switches and capacitors, but they robbed our appliances of their staying power. Technologies produced with these parts are rarely repaired; they are simply replaced. Accordingly, they lose their object value. If they’re going to be replaced, anyway, why build them to last?

That’s why, as I threw my Motorola cell phone against the wall yet again last week in disgust at its poor battery life, I had a strange thought: what if this is as good as it gets? I know - there is still plenty of work left to be done by the hardware community. Better cameras, bigger memories, more features, and so on. But think about it: cell phones - and all consumer grade wireless technologies - might actually be in that magical sweet spot.

After all, the companies manufacturing cell phones are pretty much the same ones responsible for developing the technologies, to begin with: Motorola, Nokia, Ericsson, Palm. Sure, Samsung and their friends are closing in - but that’s just my point. There’s another circle of manufacturers gearing up behind them, too, and so on. As pricing pressure on access provider contracts makes cell phone subsidization less affordable, and the high-quality cell phone will go the way of the old, high-quality Western Electric or Bell labs rotary. Those heavy old telephones were used successfully as murder weapons throughout the 1960’s. Try cracking someone’s skull with a Conair.

Take a good look at your cell phone or PDA. Feel its weight in your hand. There’s even some metal on these things. Consider the quality of the microchip - processing power to burn, in most cases - and the thought and care that went into that lithium battery. Or check out the design and solidity of your Airport Extreme Base Station - the first of the home-ready 802.11 routers, and still available today from the same manufacturer who thought it up in pretty much the same package as when it was first released.

None of us knows for sure what’s going to replace the microchip, but I’ve got a feeling it’ll make the microchip look robust by comparison. The phones and wireless devices we own today will be the ones we talk about with each other when we get old. “Remember how clear your voice would sound on an old Nokia 7650?” “How about the satisfying click of the keys on an Ericsson TI28?” “Nothing like an old microchip, especially compared with these newfangled nano-pins.”

I don’t think it’s too early to call this moment a zenith. We’re not in the tube stage, anymore - the equivalent of banging on the top of the set to get the squiggly lines to go away. That was the era of the ‘brick phone.’ (Whatever happened to Oki, anyway?) No, I suspect we’re in that second stage: the early transistor period, the V-8 engine era - the one that goes by too quickly for us to appreciate just how close to their own R&D our devices live. Mass produced, maybe, but quasi-prototypes, all the same.

To me, this makes them classics.