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Remembrance of Phones Past

I once went through a painful, protracted breakup, conducted almost entirely over this LG phone. It wasn’t a bad phone, but to this day, even a picture of it is like a punch to the gut - its Major-thirds ringtone, the wallpaper mocking my heartache with its cheery blue sky. I feel a little nauseous even describing it (my description may just be nauseating, in fairness).

In 2001, I spoke to my father on this Kyocera smartphone from 8th Avenue, having run up the block from work just in time to see the first tower fall. I don’t have to go into all the emotional baggage which that implies.

Now, in my current phase, I probably don’t have enough perspective to characterize what of me is reflected in my current phone, but I think that in a while, I’ll have an idea.

Since the time began that we were never to be found without our mobile phones (or whichever portable devices, for that matter), I feel that somehow all of the memories of the current chapter of my life are being constantly averaged out and inextricably linked to the phone that I’m using.

Do you have any similar experiences to share? Do you think that linking my identity to my gadgets entails a sort of anthropomorphism? What do you think Proust would have to say about all this? (I’ve never read Proust, so I’m honestly asking.) Other insightful references to prior discussions or great thinkers would be helpful as well.

Update: Michael Leddy at orange crate art has been mining his Proust and has turned up an incredibly relevant passage to the discussion:

…a thing which we have looked at long ago, if we see it again, brings back to us, along with our original gaze, all the images which that gaze contained. This is because things — a book in its red binding, like the rest — at the moment we notice them, turn within us into something immaterial, akin to all the preoccupations or sensations we have at that particular time, and mingle indissolubly with them.

-Marcel Proust, Finding Time Again

Reader comments

BenjaminDec 05, 2007 at 11:43AM

Recently my parents replaced the microwave which had been on our counter for 20 years. It had seen the birth of my younger sister and was only meters away from the deaths of two grandparents. I feel awkward with or even bitter toward other microwaves, especially ones which allow you to heat something up with the push of just one button.

JeffDec 05, 2007 at 11:45AM

Thanks for writing this post. I've often felt silly for the connection I've had to my phones over the years, but at certain points it's been my only link to friends and family for many months at a time.

alfieDec 05, 2007 at 11:54AM

Wow. You just hit it on the head - there's something about the ever-present nature of the phone, and ones habit of *looking at it* that has linked many events in my life to specific handsets. There's certainly some anthropomorphism going on, and I don't know what Proust would say; what would Jesus say? (anthropomorphism of the handset qualifying as some strange false diety worship?)

raulDec 05, 2007 at 11:58AM

Back in the early 90's I worked for the infamous Hollywood producer Scott Rudin. He was an early cell phone adopter and his offices were always something of a laboratory for unusual rigs. We had a suitcase sized motorola for remote locations, a mobile fax machine with thermal paper (it took 4 hours for a script to come through), a mobria senator which was used as a portable instead of a it's intended use as car phone, along with a never ending supply beepers and smaller phones (Rudin had a tendency to throw phones out the window). All the phones in that era were unreliable, hot to the touch , and smelly (they gave off an electrical smell when heated up). The whole experience of being constantly on-call (4:30 wakeups delivered by beeper) and stressing about batteries (which rarely were worth more than 30 or 40 minutes of talk time) put me off cell phones for more than a decade. I now have an iphone but in the last few months I've made only 2 or 3 calls with it. I love having the internet in my pocket though.

BrockDec 05, 2007 at 12:22PM

I can't remember what my old phones even looked like. I can remember the events of 9/11 like they were yesterday, and what the concrete stairs of my friend's house felt like as I sat there after one bad breakup, but the phones ... nothing. All I can say is I am pretty sure it was silver.

But I don't interact with my phones, or see the world through them. I don't like talking on the phone (conversation are very short), and I've never had a camera phone worth taking pictures with. Maybe if I had an iPhone, or any phone actually pleasant to use, really, it would be different.

jkottkeDec 05, 2007 at 12:28PM

I've never used my cellphone much, so they don't bring back too many memories. I'm using my iPhone a lot though and I imagine I will come to associate it pretty strongly with the birth of my son. One of the only fond memories I have of the post-birth hospital experience is Meg and me bundling into the hospital bed with Ollie nestled between us and watching Finding Nemo on the iPhone.

FyshDec 05, 2007 at 12:29PM

I think you must certainly mean Ruskin and not Proust. Ruskin is famous for, among other things, having given the overly dramatic name of 'pathetic fallacy' to that apparently irrepressible human urge to attribute emotions or thoughts to inanimate things. I think your question about phones goes beyond pathetic fallacy though - you're asking if the phones hold significance, not if the phones are sad on your behalf, I think. If I'm not mistaken, Ruskin was responding to a wave of religiosity and overly flouncy poetry in England at the time (late 1800s)... think of Wordsworth (
Also, I still don't have a mobile phone, but I do have a pair of beat-ass boots that have seen me through some fantastic territory that I continue to repair (at a cost higher than the original value of the boots and higher than the cost of new boots) so that I can keep taking them with me.

Michael LeddyDec 05, 2007 at 12:42PM

I think it's possible to have this sort of relationship with any object involved in self-expression -- fountain pens, pencils, notebooks, datebooks, and so on. Or with any object that accrues associations over years. There's nothing silly about a beloved object.

The telephone fascinated Proust. Here are two passages from In Search of Lost Time:

pauldwaiteDec 05, 2007 at 1:19PM

My parents got me my first mobile phone for my last year of university, so we could keep in touch more easily. I lost it right at the end of the year, and used hand me downs for a couple of months.

I then signed up to a contract, and got a new phone, basically the next model up from my first. When I started choosing the ring and alert tones, hearing the same sounds that my first phone made suddenly took me right back to the start of my last year at university. It was pretty intense and unexpected.

Iโ€™ve had similar memory experiences with smells, but that was the first time sound did it.

billcDec 05, 2007 at 1:47PM

My wife and i are divorcing, in the process of mediation. This summer, while we were freshly separated, my cell phone died. Rather than the expense of buying a phone outright in the middle of my contract, i decided to just use her old phone (she had just renewed and gotten a new one). It's the cell phone that i'd call in the middle of the night trying to figure out where she was, phone she used to call the guy she cheated on me with, the phone that was an instrument in the very ending of our marriage, and now i'm carrying the damn thing around every day until i can afford a new one. When i got it, the first thing i did was clean her friends out of the address book; her new boyfriend's ringtone was called 'uh-oh'. I don't think i ever want a motorola phone again.

jael f.Dec 05, 2007 at 1:52PM

Interesting post. So, have gadgets become the new music? Instead of, I remember when . . . we were in the back of joe's car listening to journey's open arms when, . . . It's now - I was on my samsung stage talking to joe when . . . .

or melding? - I remember when I was listening to journey on my iphone in back of joe's car.

KyleDec 05, 2007 at 1:54PM


Every time I look at my SE s710a cellphone, which was a key instrument in a prolonged and painful breakup of my own, I get little knots in my stomach.

Fucking technology!

LaurieDec 05, 2007 at 2:06PM

When my father moved into a nursing home on the other coast from where I live, I began to call him more frequently and that usually happened on my way home from work. He was speed dial #5. He died two years ago at the age of 89 (after a life well-lived) and I've kept his number in my contact list. Seeing "Dad" still there reminds me of the all conversations we had on that phone.

judson Dec 05, 2007 at 2:14PM

If you've owned a dependable machine you can't help but compare it's reliability to a human. I got a krups espresso machine almost 20 years ago that remains the single most reliable entity/object/ I've ever lived with.

EDec 05, 2007 at 3:08PM

It still gives me chills to see my departed mom's name on my mobile phone address book. Yet I still can't bring myself to erase it. Strangely, her own phone became inoperable after she passed (couldn't turn on, even after being charged), and no one was able to re-use it. I'm not sure if the number itself became "repurposed:" Maybe there should be a way to retire that as well?

Adam LisagorDec 05, 2007 at 4:58PM

I had a feeling I wasn't alone in this. It's clear from all these great responses that it's not uncommon to attach memories of events and people and eras to the machines with which we interact. I would think especially so with the devices we use for communication, but espresso machines and microwaves and all manners of appliance can be objects of memory transference as well, I guess.

Thanks also for the extra reading material. Both sources are right on.

And thanks to those of you who shared your personal experiences.

sarahDec 05, 2007 at 5:43PM

@E: totally. a late friend's husband didn't change the name on their phone account for at least a year after she died, and any time her name would come up on call display i'd be really disoriented. "is she back? am i remembering wrong? oh... that's just the billing name." very jarring, way more so than receiving mail for her or even finding notes from her.

and for extra reading... this morning i came across a quote from baudrillard, talking about the postmodern tendency to conflate symbols and models with reality, which seems relevant. the phone and the associations blend together, so there is an emotional reaction to the actual phone.

kitty holmesDec 05, 2007 at 8:45PM

when we bought a new car last year we traded our well loved (but a total lemon) of a land rover in at the dealership, and both of us felt like we'd traded an elderly pet in for a shiny new one. i actually felt guilty when we drove away. the new car was recently a victim of a hit and run, and my husband really didn't want to go to the body shop because he knew it was in pieces.

as for phones, every time i hear the dolphin sound effect on tv the dog and i jump thinking it's my old sidekick ringing. this is especially problematic when watching simpsons re-runs. most of my memories of the sidekick are of rebooting it, the damn thing crashed all the time.

AdamDec 05, 2007 at 8:55PM

I once wrote a short story about the purses and handbags of all the women who had been in my life (mother, babysitter, first girlfriend, crazy girlfriend, current girlfriend), in chronological order, and the significances that each of those purses had in terms of revealing the character of the owners, and the relationships.

It was an admittedly odd sort of a thing for a man to write, and I have done my level best not to notice anything about handbags ever since.

SteveDec 05, 2007 at 9:36PM

I had a Nokia 6610 that held the number of a girl I dated for a while, who sadly ended her own life. I held that number for months, and wanted to call it on and off, though I never did. When I deleted it, it was a wrench. A friend now has the same phone (even though it's years old now) and I can never see it without thinking of her.

MikeDec 05, 2007 at 10:27PM

This is not "anthropomorphism", it is "Material Posession Attachment"

Definition and Boundaries of Material Possession Attachment

Material possession attachment is a multi-faceted property of the relationship between a specific individual or group of individuals and a specific, material object that an individual has psychologically appropriated, decommodified, and singularized through person-object interaction. Nine characteristics portray attachment: (1) attachment forms with specific material objects, not product categories or brands; (2) attachment possessions must be psychologically appropriated; (3) attachments are self-extensions; (4) attachments are decommodified and singularized; (5) attachment requires a personal history between person and possession; (6) attachment has the property of strength; (7) attachment is multi-faceted; (8) attachment is emotionally complex; and (9) attachments evolve over time as the meaning of the self changes. Attachment is conceptually distinct from: general trait materialism, product category involvement, and evaluative affect toward the possession.

More here:

An Integrative Review of Material Possession Attachment

LeeDec 06, 2007 at 12:21AM

My husband died almost ten years ago. I still have the early 1990's beeper which buzzed when he wanted me to call. We had car phones (attached to vehicles) but they were disconnected when cars were sold or disabled. Then, in the middle 90's, he bought a big cell phone (with an antenna) which he was using just before his death. I also have a second line in my house which still has his name when called from that number. For some reason, these communication devices are very valuable to me. Perhaps, if I pick them up, in some way I would be able to hear his voice again. The mind works in strange and mysterious ways.

leslieDec 06, 2007 at 12:38AM

I'm currently a junior in college. Just after I got my first cell phone, I met my first serious boyfriend. This was halfway through my senior year of high school, and he lived almost an hour away so we would talk on the phone for hours every night. We continued dating into our freshman years of college, when he was in philly and I in boston. We broke up at the end of freshman year, and I started dating someone else from home the beginning of sophomore year, this time a guy in annapolis. I spent just as many long hours on the phone with him, and our relationship lasted about a year.

We broke up over the summer, around the time I got my phone replaced. That first cell phone lasted me through two incredibly meaningful and serious relationships, and two equally significant breakups. It was freedom for the first time, to be able to contact any of my friends at any point, sneak out of the house at night and meet up, the ability to take the chinatown bus from boston to nyc and from nyc to philly, weaving through city streets and texting google for directions. But more than it gave me freedom, that phone was my lifeline to the two people I cared about most. That phone saw relationships tentatively begin, flourish, painfully end, tears, confessions, so many ultimate highs and lows. The almost ideal coincidence of getting that phone at the beginning of the first relationship and retiring it at the end of the second put perfect brackets around that phase of my life where my significant others were 500 miles away and the closest I could be with them was by talking on the phone.

it's a really basic phone. no camera, no ringtones, no games, but when they asked me to turn it in for recycling, i told them there was no way in hell. I have it sitting on my desk, all chipped and obsolete, but it never failed me, and it's just such a perfect symbol of the distinguishing features of that time in my life. I could never throw it away.

PoagaoDec 06, 2007 at 1:23AM

Most things, like cars, furniture, computers, are like this, but it's only been in the past few years that we have lived so much of our lives through our phones, and the relationship is only going to get closer as we do more things through these devices. I listed all the phones I've had with comments on Flickr:

If you showed this to me in 1998 I wouldn't have believed it.

SteveDec 06, 2007 at 1:25AM

I suppose I have some feelings about my first cell phone, a huge but quite graceful thing, which I got while living in Hong Kong. It was an extraordinary time for me. But more significant is an old watch. My parents gave it to me for either high school or college graduation, I could never remember which, but either way it was one very old Seiko. It sprung a leak and rusted from sheer humidity during a business and pleasure trip to Taiwan, one of the happiest weeks of my life. I'll never forget looking down at it on that bus ride and seeing time stopped. And I'll never get rid of it.

uniroverDec 06, 2007 at 1:25AM

Despite the popular misconception, Proust is very clear that memories do not arise from special objects. It is a chance sensation (which may come from any old object) that calls up the past in a way that cannot be planned or predicted. You can certainly stare at old phones and recollect the past, but his deeper idea of involuntary memory is that it all happens by sheer accident. For him, that kind of memory is more joyous than mere recollection. And much more fleeting.

Michael SolomonDec 06, 2007 at 10:56AM

Forget gadgets! Has anyone had the warm and fuzzies about software? I have often reflected on the visceral emotional fondness I have for an application (one that is admittedly my bread-and-butter) once it was replaced by a later version that, for all its "improvements" and advancements, simply did not work as well and was over-designed and complicated to boot; I cursed myself for a fogey and a luddite, until I started to glean from forums and the general industry buzz, that my old version was indeed a classic and a gem, and that people were going through considerable pains to keep the superannuated operating systems going just to run the adored app! But then, I reflected, that it really is a tool: the physical sense of frustration and abandonment would probably be the same if I were a woodsman and someone had stolen my favourite ax.

Swift LorisDec 07, 2007 at 12:50AM

Very interesting, long discussion in a comments thread on BoingBoing concerning reactions to a video in which the creators of a robotic dinosaur toy called Pleo slap the Pleo around and otherwise mistreat it, while it makes squawking and whimpering sounds as if in pain. Some of the commenters found the video disturbing, others didn't, and the reasons why are debated at length, with some excursions into fairly sophisticated philosophical issues:

KellyDec 07, 2007 at 9:10AM

I have loved each of my phones, and have parted reluctantly with all of them, only to fall deeply and radically in love with the new phone. A particularly hard break-up was when I had to abandon my Qualcomm analog phone for a digital one.

I know why I love my phone--I am a divorced mother of two sons and they communicate with me primarily through text messages (especially my younger son).

Yeah, I'm a human with 'material possession attachment.' But the reason is in the paragraph above.

ElaineDec 07, 2007 at 3:08PM

@unirover: I have that experience with what I think is a particular shampoo or conditioner that was used by someone with whom I had a brief but intense fling. I swear sometimes I smell it at random times, especially in large crowds. The combination of emotions (11 years later!) is still a little overwhelming.

@Michael Solomon: software can definitely provoke the same feelings as more "material" tools, in my experience.

I don't have those associations with phones, probably because I bought my first phone 5+ years ago, and my 2nd a year ago.

MaryDec 07, 2007 at 4:24PM

I miss rotary phones! When I was a teenager we had only one phone in our house and it was in the kitchen. I had to stretch the cord out as far as it would go so I could go into the bathroom and not be overheard when I was talking to my boyfriend.

Anyhow, the whole process of dialing was so satisfying. You'd stick your finger in the hole over the number 9, rotate the wheel all the way around to the stop (which produced a kind of "clunk" noise), pull your finger out and then the wheel would whirr back to it's ready position. And then you'd get to start all over with another number. I wonder why cell phone makers don't digitize that noise for cell phones?!

Open EnglishDec 12, 2007 at 4:48PM

I think most of us have similar experiences... what we see, smell, hear, or taste can bring us back to a moment we might have never remembered otherwise.

This thread is closed to new comments. Thanks to everyone who responded.