The Mobile Phone: Anchor of Postmodern Life

I live in New York and mobile phones are everywhere.  I regularly take a bus or subway to get around and, most striking, I see few people who still read an old-fashioned paper newspaper or book.  Nearly everyone seems to be glued to their handheld phone.

This is very much the same while walking down the street, with the eyes of an ever-growing number of people glued to their tiny phone screens.  Once those who talked out loud in public seemed weird, but today people talking out loud walking down the street or on a bus or subway is just oh-so-21st century.

Weirder still, sitting in a coffee shop or restaurant, all too often the couple across the way is not talking to each other but endlessly checking their smartphones.  It’s the new normal.

One can pick up a “phone” — be it wired or wireless — almost anywhere in the country or around the globe and call a friend, family member, business associate, police or whoever else almost anywhere and at (essentially) any time.  The wireless mobile phone is – at once – the anchor, the grounding technology, and the lubricant, the electronic facilitator, of 21st-century, postmodern life.

Today’s mobile phone era began inauspiciously on April 3, 1973, when Motorola’s Martin Cooper called Joel Engel of Bell Labs over the first cellphone. “Hi, Joel, I’m calling on a cellphone, but a real cellphone, a personal, handheld, portable cellphone.”

People, including an ever-growing number of youths, live through their hand-held and finger-navigated mobile devices – they speak, text, email, watch videos, socially connect and whatever more through their mobile phones.  And by “everyone,” I mean essentially everyone, no matter what age, gender, race or apparent economic status. The only ones who do not appear to have such devices are very young children, the very old and the ever-increasing number of lost souls who wander the city’s streets.

Postmodern, 21st Century America is a telecom interdependent nation. There are more telecom subscribers than people in the country.  It is estimated that there are — 518 million telecom subscribers (i.e., wireless, wireline and cable) According to CTIA, the wireless industry trade association, in 2021 there were 469 million mobile wireless devices in use and, of these, 190 million were connected devices that included smartphones, laptops, tablets, watches and in cars. The 2020 U.S. Census reports the population at 331 million, that’s 1.4 wireless devices per person.

Worldwide, one estimate places the number of smartphone users in 2023 at 6.92 billion, 86 percent of the world’s population.


Nearly a century-and-a-half ago, on June 2, 1875, while experimenting with his “harmonic telegraph,” Alexander Graham Bell called out to his assistant, Thomas A. Watson, “Mr. Watson – Come here – I want to see you.” They are considered the first words spoken between two telephones over an electrified wire. In 1876, Bell publicly displayed the telephone and, the following year, formed the Bell Telephone Company that became the American Telephone and Telegraph (AT&T) Company – aka “Ma Bell.”

A century ago, AT&T introduced the first nationwide telephone system. This was during the nation’s “modern” era, one defined by such innovations as the light bulb, typewriter, sewing machine and phonograph following the adoption of the railroad and photography. This era saw the nation’s population more than double and become an industrial powerhouse.

Initially, the telephone was a luxury service, slowly appearing in businesses and more upscale homes.  However, a century later, telecom service has become a necessity, and — like water and electricity services — most Americans take their telecom connectivity for granted. If it works – however poorly and over-priced – we use it. We complain about slow download and upload speeds, static reception, high fees and bad customer service, but we pay our bill every month; sometimes, we shop around for a better deal only to end up with a similarly failing, overpriced service.

Today, the U.S. telecommunications system is a vast enterprise that operates, in effect, like the nation’s nervous system. It mediates, and electronically facilitates, nearly every aspect of postmodern communications, whether personal, business, health, education, commercial or government connections.  It allows users to check the latest news headline, see a presidential address, consult one’s doctor, take up a promotional offering, paying a bill, join a dating service hook-up or check out a porn flick.  It facilitates voice, video, internet, social media, movies and streaming services, whether over a wired or wireless network, be it fixed or mobile.

Yet, few Americans are aware that the U.S. is a second-tier telecom country.  The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) ranks the U.S. 32nd in terms of fiber deployment of the 38 OECD countries.  The U.S. is ranked 15th-fastest for mobile speeds (at 110.07 Mbps) and 13th-fastest for broadband speeds (at 203.81 Mbps).  As of April 2022, only 43 percent of American homes had access to fiber broadband services compared to Norway and South Korea with over 80 percent access, and Spain, Portugal and Japan were above 90 percent

Making matters worse, Americans pay more for their inferior telecom services. In the U.S., the monthly fee for internet service (at 60 Mbps) is estimated at $70.06 compared to Canada ($64.29), the U.K. ($38.72), France ($32.23) and Japan ($33.45).  And Americans are systematically overcharged not only by rigged service fees (e.g., “Ramming,” Cramming,” “Slamming” and other scams) but a host of hidden fees like “Subscriber Line Charges” and “Inside Wire Charges” and miscellaneous charges (e.g., “Call Waiting,” “Caller ID” and “Call Forwarding”).

And then there is the digital divide,” telecom inequality. In our postmodern nation, millions of Americans lack even basic connections to broadband and the internet.  The FCC finds that approximately 15 million Americans still lack access to fixed broadband service at minimum threshold speeds (i.e., 25 Mbps/download and 3 Mbps/upload).  In rural areas, nearly one-fourth of the population (14.5 million people) lack access to this service.  However, John Kahan, Microsoft’s chief data analytics officer, warned that the FCC was vastly undercounting the actual number.  He noted that Microsoft data indicate that almost 162.8 million people “are not using the internet at broadband speeds.”

The failure to build out the telecom infrastructure fashions what is known as “digital redlining.”  It has resulted in pockets throughout the country, in cities and rural areas, with little or poor-quality telecom services.  Millions of school children lack adequate internet access or broadband-enabled learning devices, while their parents are deprived of advanced employment opportunities, digital medical services and entertainment experiences.

Equally troubling, few Americans are aware that telecom companies track every call, email, web search, Zoom session, social networking connection, streaming session or download, thus turning the postmodern user into a digital commodity whose personal data is being sold to marketers or third parties whose interests and purposes are unknown to them.


Over the last half-century, wireless media technology has gone through five phases or “generations” mirroring how media tech has evolved.  Today’s Fifth Generation or “5G” was developed in South Korea in 2008. Samsung announced that it had created a 5G network in 2013 and, in 2019, Verizon introduced 5G in the U.S. Today, 5G is slowly superseding 4G LTE in many metropolitan areas – and 6G development is underway.

The telecom industry is promoting “5G” wireless technology because it utilizes higher-frequency radio bands — 3.5 GHz [Gigahertz] to 26 GHz and beyond – than 4G, thus offering greater signal capacity.  However, to be deployed, 5G requires the installation of a greater number of cell transmitters and receivers that are located closer to the ground and to a customer’s home.

The American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), part of the Koch brothers’ network of corporate front organizations that lobby for their “Libertarian” free-market agenda, plays a pivotal role in influencing telecom policy.  ALEC’s 5G campaign was aggressively taken up by FCC Commissioner Brendan Carr.  Speaking before Indiana’s Statehouse in 2018, Carr promised that “5G will create jobs, improve education and promote safety. But to upgrade our networks, we must upgrade our regulations.” He added:

Policymakers can’t claim success if 5G is only deployed in big cities like New York and San Francisco. Those ‘must serve’ cities will get next-gen mobile broadband almost regardless of what we do. Success means every community getting a fair shot at 5G.

Going further, he argued, “To achieve that success, we need to update our rules to match this revolutionary new technology.”

For nearly a decade, health and social activists have raised concerns about 5G technology.  Devra Davis, PhD, MPH and president of Environmental Health Trust (EHT), has been one of the strongest critics of 5G technology.  “The EHT Trust has worked for over a decade to protect the public from radiofrequency [RF] radiation, testified to Congress and published critical research on why children are more vulnerable,” she said.

Sadly, 5G has very little to do with the actual public benefits of wireless technology, especially as a “mobile” service that facilitates today’s hectic, postmodern lifestyle.  Rather, 5G is more a marketing term used to

signal the wonderful future promised by a new technology and to ensure legislative deregulation, specifically the blocking any interference with the placement of the numerous small cell 5G antennae.

The telecom industry’s ceaseless promotion of 5G has served to block or reduce the rate of fiber deployments by the leading “phone” and “cable” companies. AT&T finished its fiber buildout reaching 14 million homes in 2019; Verizon is focused primarily on wireless (“5G”) and its fiber deployment is determined by where it helps facilitate wireless traffic.  And Comcast and Charter/Spectrum, the leading “cable” companies, most often employ hybrid fiber-coaxial (HFC) networks.  As a result, as one estimate suggests, fiber-to-the-home (FTTH) as a share of total homes passed has been “stalled at 23% over the past year.”


The telephone, especially the mobile phone, has a long and remarkable history.  Over the last century-plus of evolution, it changed social life throughout the world. Equally significant, from Bell to Jobs and beyond, it has forged a powerful industry.  It facilitates the electronic connectivity that enables what we know as “big tech” — Amazon, Apple, Facebook, Google and Microsoft.  As Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) warns:

As these companies have grown larger and more powerful, they’ve used their resources and control over how we use the Internet to squash small business and innovation, and substitute their own financial interests for the broader interests of the American people.

When you pick up that small — and relatively weightless — smartphone, take a moment and reflect that you are holding a remarkable example of technological evolution.  It anchors postmodern life; it is an electronic key that opens many, many doors.  Ever-increasing dimensions of people’s lives – be they personal or social — are mediated through the digital connectivity that the mobile phone facilitates.  It makes you are a postmodern, 21st-century person.

David Rosen is the author of Sex, Sin & Subversion:  The Transformation of 1950s New York’s Forbidden into America’s New Normal (Skyhorse, 2015).  He can be reached at; check out