Last week I got a new iPhone. This is not by any means an extraordinary event. I had some downtime at work so I hopped across the street and 30 minutes later had a slick, gold 5s. I had been using a 4G (not a 4s) well past its prime. It was time to join everyone else in 2014.
When I got home I put the old phone in a red Baccarat box in my closet, with every other iPhone I've owned since the first once came out. Most people turn them in when they upgrade, but for me, each phone captured a distinct period of time. They're like little time capsules. I have pretty much every single text anyone has ever sent me. I know I could keep the digital conversation going by simply transferring the data, but I see each new phone as the start of a new era. At least that's how it worked out.
I got my first iPhone shortly after breaking up with a long-term boyfriend in 2007. A breakup that, ironically, was sparked thanks to information gleaned when he asked for help setting up his iPhone, the week that they first came out. He didn't have the patience to sit on the phone with AT&T, and no good ever comes when you give your girlfriend your email password.
The texts and photos on my first iPhone are of a specific single girl era in Manhattan. Before people started using texting to write Russian novels to each other, it was used in a perfunctory manner. Meet me at the movie theater at 6:45. Or I bought ingredients at the farmers market. Making stew tonight! Just the vanilla back and forth of modern dating. I was never anxious about texts from men or summoned friends to try to analyze their deeper meanings. They were just words on a screen, a warm up before the Big Show later on.
The 3GS was purchased about a month before my son was born. I tapped away on it in the delivery room while I waited for the Pitocin to kick in. My first photos of him -- which were quickly uploaded to Facebook -- were taken on that phone. It was the device I used to light my way around a dark apartment when he woke up at four in the morning. There are texts about the Christening, logistics about traveling with an infant to get to a friend's wedding and updates from the part-time nanny. Once I was back at work and socializing again, it's full of plans to go to places like the Brandy Library, Employees Only and the Rose Bar at the Gramercy Park hotel. These are places that just an earlier iPhone model before would have been out of my price range, and when I didn't know anyone who appreciated Macallan 18.
The 4G came during a period of professional and personal limbo, when I was unsure of what I wanted to do in several areas of life. The phone itself became symbolic of the era, slow and clunky and not quite with the times. The 4G served its function, but as I've leveled up, so has my technology. It's the phone, though, that I got the first call from my agent,on, the phone that rang when I got good news about a job, and the phone that delivered text messages from friends who humored me along the way, as well as from people who bailed on me just a hair too early.
I doubt the Smithsonian will ever have an exhibit of the Collected Texts and Data of Pauline Millard. There isn't much documented drama on any of them. I save the airing of grievances for phone calls and in-person sit downs, much like Tony Soprano. But I love looking at the first texts people sent, those early communications when you're just getting to know someone, before complications like lingering ex-girlfriends and general human neurosis factor into the equation. It's a learning tool. You can see where you were wrong, where you could have been more assertive and where you should have just put down the phone and occupied your mind with something else.
I'm always amused when I find a nostalgic piece online about what we're losing since personal letter-writing has become obsolete. While the idea of finding a bundle of love letters in an attic is romantic, it assumes that everyone in days of yore was a wordsmith, mailing off every thought as it occurred. Writing in any form takes skill and focus. Some people are better at it than others. Just as there are people today who are disinclined to write, this was also the case when Roosevelt was in in office. There are just some stories we will never know about, because someone didn't put pen to paper.
In February 2012, Sherry Turkle gave a TED talk about how we may be connected, but we are actually quite alone, and that "sips of communication" are replacing real human interaction. While it's true that texting at the dinner table is a little rude, it's exactly these "sips of communication" that make up the details of life that you don't want to forget, and the ones that would never have made it into that yellowing pile of letters, tied together with ribbon.
The idiosyncratic one liners I shoot off to my childhood friends who live in other states keep the relationship fresh. I squeal in public when a girlfriend sends over a photo of her engagement ring. I grin bittersweetly when I re-read the texts from the guy who, years ago, in an attempt to get me to meet him at Babbo, claimed he just saw a woman who looked exactly like me standing on a corner in the West Village. Was I around? How about I join him for a drink? (It wasn't me on the corner, but what a great way to non-awkwardly get in touch with a woman you hadn't seen in a while.)
It's been reported that people sometimes have a hard time moving on from breakups because the entire relationship is documented in front of them everyday, on their screen. I can see how that can be distracting. Perhaps the cure is to just get a new phone, one with no texting or photo history, just a blank queue behind the little green app, ready for the next chapter. The old phone doesn't have to go away to that Apple store in the sky. It can go live in a box in your closet, so as not to interfere with the here and now.