It’s a miracle humanity has survived this far, if reaction to the inability to make or receive a telephone call is to be believed

In one of the mailing lists devoted to chatting among people who work in a particular cluster of Microsoft office buildings, there was some discussion of the quality of mobile phone coverage in the parking garage.

"I can't get a signal in any of the underground levels. This is intolerable!"

Here's an idea: Walk to ground level and make your call there.

"But what if it's an emergency?"

Then run.

(Or use one of the emergency phones.)

Sometimes I wonder how humanity had managed to survive prior to the installation of mobile phone cell towers. Had these people been born just 30 years earlier, they wouldn't have been able to get through everyday life, having never developed their ability to plan anything in advance.

I remember the days when it was common for people not to be reachable for (gasp) hours at a time. You couldn't even leave a message at the beep; you just had to try again later. It apparently is a miracle that our species didn't go extinct.

Comments (43)
  1. Pete says:

    And now everyone complains about being able to be contacted all the time and wants to get away.

  2. Joshmo says:

    I love this; I’ve been anti-cell phone for years, and while I still have one to keep my parents off my back, I generally leave it at home and only bring it with me, oddly enough, when I travel back to my parent’s place.

  3. James Schend says:

    Obligatory Louis CK:

    "Give it a second, IT’S GOING TO SPACE! Can you give it a second to come back from space?"

  4. Marquess says:

    Darn Luddites! Next thing you say, we don’t need the Internet!

  5. Steven says:

    Not too long ago, whilst having a picknick in the middle of a forest, I actually heard an exasperated remark from somebody complaining that “the internet’s real slow out here”…

  6. Mark Jonson says:

    While it seems like it has been forever since I haven’t had wireless packet data service, I remember a time before Summer 2007 when GPRS/1xRTT was something only for people with "expensive" cell phone plans; the era before the iPhone came to introduce society to mobile Internet. That being said, about a month ago I went on a cabin retreat overnight with about 30 others. Most of us had cell phones with us, which worked with a weak EDGE signal. But no 3G service. In addition, the cabin had no water, electricity, or landline telephone. As we sat around the fire, a good 10-15 present spent most of the evening trying to access the Internet via the weak EDGE signal, which I happen to know was only being broadcast from one sector of one tower that was within a reachable distance of our phones. This effectively meant that "the Internet was really slow out there," and almost everyone who was unsuccessfully using it was complaining how poorly it worked for over 2 hours, yet they continually attempted to refresh and slowly load one page at a time whenever it would work.

  7. Gabe says:

    Back in 1995 a bunch of us decided on a whim to go to Vancouver for the day. It’s 2-3 hours’ drive from Seattle and we didn’t all fit in one car, so we had to make contingency plans for if we got separated. I don’t remember the details, but none of us had been there before, so we just figured on taking the obvious route, following the signs to downtown Vancouver, finding a neighborhood we had heard about, waiting at an obvious landmark that w could be sure would exist. After thinking for a while, we decided the landmark would be the nearest McDonald’s.

    Well, needless to say we got separated, so we went searching for the nearest McDonald’s. In case it’s not obvious by now, it turned out there was no McDonald’s anywhere that neighborhood. We never learned what happened to the rest of our group.

    If we did the trip now with cell phones, GPS, and MapQuest, it would turned out to be a much different trip.

  8. David Walker says:

    I have been a computer programmer for 34 years (I started on IBM mainframes).  I do not have a cell phone, and I don’t want one.  (If you have a cell phone, then people will call you all the time!)

    I don’t have an iPod, or an iPad, or an iPhone, or a Kindle, or even a pager (although I used to have a pager).  I read books printed on paper (I have about 600 books at home).

    I don’t Tweet or use Facebook.  Part of my life is my own!  I do, however, sometimes use Google Maps to find where I’m going.  :-)

  9. Mike K says:

    A local radio station here in Minneapolis had a bunch of callers today complaining about how bad the cell phone service is at the new MN Twins stadium, Target Field.

    ""I had some friends that were really jealous that I was there," said Twins fan Heidi Ruen. "And I promised to post some TwitPics on Twitter and Facebook, but I couldn’t even get them to text."

    She kept trying, but couldn’t get a signal out of the stadium. "

    GASP!!  I guess I was in the minority yesterday, I enjoyed the game and my $90 tickets.  To me it would seem a waste to be staring at my phone screen the whole time.  The vast majority of the populous probably doesn’t need up to the minute Tweets or Facebook status updates from the game.

  10. f.aa says:

    @ Gabe:

    Never? Even after 15 years? You should have filed a missing persons report…

  11. Grumpy says:

    I’m often not reachable for hours at a time as I regularly forget to feed the phone. It’s a resilient li’l beast, it has revived every time so far. I live in hope though…

  12. PhilW says:

    That’s exactly true. It’s most striking to me at conferences where managers and senior tech guys are on their phones all the time talking about what’s to be done back at the office. So even the ability to deal with a planned absence has been lost, and apparently so has the ability to make any plans at all. It’s been replaced by a constant stream of ad hoc questions directed at managers to decide the next thing to do. Delegation seems to be a thing of the past as a consequence of constant availability. The next time I’m in a rest room and I hear someone sitting down and talking on the phone, aaarg!!

  13. Emmanuel says:

    One trick I picked up to deal with the whole "if I have a cell phone, people will call me" situation: I simply don’t answer my phone unless I feel like it.

    My immediate family knows that if they call me three times in a row, that means there is some life-or-death situation, and I’ll drop whatever I’m doing/pull over the car/leave my meeting to take the call. But for anything else, I just hit "silent" and let it go to voicemail unless I actually feel like talking to that person at the moment.

  14. 640k says:

    I'm the most important person in the world. Thus I must answer all calls, ignoring and irritating the physical people around me.

  15. James Schend says:

    Emmanuel: At the risk of sounding snide, I think "the phone rings, I MUST ANSWER IT!" is something that previous (older) generations have genetically implanted in their heads. My parents, for example, practically trample the family pet rushing towards ringing phones. It’s like considered some kind of horrible thing if you miss the call, like you’ll never get to talk to that person again in your entire life or something. People who grew up before answering machines and voicemail.

    I’m guessing that David Walker is the same way, since he gave the same "if I had a phone, people would call me all the time." The correct answer is, "so what if people call you all the time? Don’t answer."

    Remember, you carry the phone for *your* convenience, not the caller’s.

  16. Phil says:

    Sorry, I just woke up, Are we talking about punch cards again

  17. Worf says:

    Yeah, I never did understand when this whole cellphone necessity thing came from. Go back just a decade and it wasn’t so prevalent. Go back a decade and a half… and cellphones were owned by the well off.

    Man, imagine how bad life was when the babysitter couldn’t reach you. Or the hospital needed a doctor who was out.

    Oh wait. We coped – we told the babysitter to call 911 first, then gave them the restaurant, movie theatre, etc phone numbers so they could reach us by calling the business who would relay the message or direct us to a phone. Doctors had little black pagers they wore on call (and pagers still get way better coverage than cellphones).

    Me personally, I don’t give my cell number to anyone. A few people know it, but they also know my other numbers. And when my cell rings and I don’t recognize the number, I silence the ring. Do that often and I’ll put you on my junk contact list. VoIP providers beware because the crap numbers mean I’m not answering.

    Home landline – answering machine gets it unless we recognize the number. The only one I answer always is work phone, but that’s because it can be important for my employer. But personally – you’re either whitelisted, or I’m not getting it.

  18. Accatagon says:

    The single biggest benefit to cell phones is not the ability to actually call and talk to people, but the ability to use them as primitive locator beacons to help find friends when you’re not exactly sure where to meet. That’s the only time I’ve ever really been like "man, I have no idea what I would do without this cell phone". Maybe whoever Raymond is talking about really needed to meet someone underground?

  19. Gabe says:

    James: You may think that carrying a phone is for the carrier’s convenience, but lots of callers think it’s for their convenience.

    For example, if I don’t answer my mother’s calls, she will eventually start leaving messages in tears, thinking I don’t love her anymore.

    My boss’s wife (who is otherwise completely rational) is even worse. She gets upset when he won’t answer her calls even if he has good reason, like being in a recording session or at a concert (playing on stage!). Once he turned his phone off while in a meeting and forgot to turn it on for the rest of the day, and she accused him of having an affair!

  20. Ian says:

    To Gabe: Arranging to meet at the nearest (unknown) McDonalds might not have been the smartest strategy. Have you ever heard of something called a ‘map’? They often show things called ‘landmarks’. No cell-coverage required. Doesn’t even need charging.

  21. Dave says:

    I saw a neat example of how to deal with ringing cellphones during a conference last year.  The speaker was interrupted during his talk by his cellphone ringing.  Without missing a beat he pulled it out of his pocket and slung it across the room to crash into the wall, whereupon it stopped ringing.

    That may have been an expensive gesture, but it brought him a good round of applause.

  22. I once needed service for my landline from the only company that provided landline service at the time (in Israel quite a few years ago.) The person who scheduled the service date and time wanted to know my mobile phone number. I didn’t have one at the time.

    She asked "how are we supposed to coordinate the technician arrival time, then?" and I retorted "how did you manage before there were cellphones? As the sole provider of landline service you really shouldn’t encourage people to get cellphones."

    She didn’t appreciate that comment :)

  23. mgbrown says:

    The survival rate of humans seems to have gone downs since mobiles became popular. For example before mobiles, we didn’t walk in front of moving traffic without looking quite like we do today. Of course, this wouldn’t be such an issue if the drivers were concentrating on the road instead of reading the email on their Blackberry.

    I also find it difficult to believe the things people will do just be cause ‘My sat-nav told me to!’

  24. How did we survive before cell phones?

    We didn’t. People died.

  25. kog999 says:

    "I can’t get a signal in any of the underground levels. This is intolerable!"

    The counterpoint to this idea IMO is the idea that technology would not advance much if people were satisfied with its current level. Granted we may not need streaming video’s, 16GB of MP3’s, and facebook status updates on our mobile phones to survive as a species but if we only ask for what we need and not what we want people would not be inclined to invent technologies to provide it. Candles provided a perfectly adequate source of light, landline phones provided communications across great distances and MS DOS provided a perfectly good operating system. Imagine if people were satisfied with these technologies and never complained they wanted more.

  26. Gabe says:

    Ian: We had heard of maps, but none of us had one. Imagine that you’re with a bunch of people in the Building 16 parking lot early on a Saturday morning. Where do you get a map of Vancouver detailed enough to show places where you could find the rest of your group when they showed up, and grab a bite to eat and sit down while you’re waiting?

    Nowadays of course the Internet has all that information, but in 1995 it didn’t. Bookstores have maps, but none were open that early on a Saturday and most bookstores don’t have maps with the kind of detail we needed anyway.

  27. mgbrown says:

    Gabe: The way we used to deal with that issue was to designate a third party (normally my Mum) who we knew would be in all day. Then if we were split up both lost parties would phone the designated third party from a phone box to pass messages between us.

    Of course the best thing to do was not get split up in the first place.

  28. Lazbro says:

    Who needs cars? Just walk or ride a donkey…

  29. Nicholas says:

    Raymond, it’s right up there with the new generation of parents that say "don’t give that to him/her, you touched it" or "I can’t feed him/her until the bottles are sterilized."

    Yeah, makes me wonder how humans were not wiped out by those pesky micro-invaders before the invention of lysol and dial soap, which kill 99.9% of germs.

    Apparently it *is* a miracle that our species didn’t go extinct.

  30. Jim says:

    Well, 30 years ago we didn’t pay ridiculously expensive and get screwed in 3-year contracts the promise of a convenience that turns out is not available when we need it…

  31. AC says:

    What a lame argument this is to support the hip “anti-cellphone” mentality. I am not saying cell phones are a necessity to survive but your argument is lame.

    “We have coped” yes, humanity as a whole has coped but many individuals have not. Imagine all those times when life or death hinges on getting those in dire medical needs immediate attention. Go tell all the families who have lost a loved one that it’s tough luck they couldn’t find or get to a phone fast enough.

    Or tell the sons/daughters who couldn’t be there for the last moments of their parents on the deathbed because they were out of reach. Oh you were on a field trip, out on a date, at the beach? Well, sucks to be you!


    Like most things in life, it’s more the disrespect and disregard for other fellow human beings that have contributed to their abuses and misuses and that is the core of the problem. Cell phones have been a great 20th century invention.  People who behave like asshats with them are not.

    I hope for the sake of you and everyone here that next time there’s an emergency, related to you or not, you will be reachable, or least someone around you is.

    [I don’t ever recall writing that we shouldn’t have cell phones. I’m just observing that there are many people who appear to have lost the ability to solve problems without it. -Raymond]
  32. Daniel says:

    Gabe, maps are sold at the gas station, even on saturday mornings, aren’t they?

    But it’s a long time since then, no need to instruct you how to get to a destination. I apologize.

    [Gas stations in Seattle tend not to carry maps of Vancouver. Actually, gas stations often don’t sell maps at all! -Raymond]
  33. Gaspar says:

    A coworker made comment I thought should be shared:

    "Nothing turns a grown man into a 13 year old girl faster than getting a new cell phone."

  34. My boss’s wife… gets upset when he won’t answer her calls…. Once he turned his phone off while in a meeting and forgot to turn it on for the rest of the day

    Forgot… or recognized what a good excuse he had.

  35. (゚Д゚) says:

    Believe it or not, people no longer always hold calls by sitting tethered to a desk for the duration.  Of course people should be able to start a phone call in their office and continue it all the way to their car, especially in a supposedly “modern” office building.

    People used to live by candlelight after nightfall, but believe it or not, most people these days expect the lights to work reliably.

    Sorry, in trying to decry the failings of humanity, this time you’re just being absurd–that, or you really havn’t looked around you for a decade or so.  Give it a rest.

    [So you’re saying that instead of responding, “Then go to the ground floor,” the correct response should have been “Gosh, given that this is a basic expectation of modern life, I guess there’s nothing you can do”? -Raymond]
  36. Dennis says:


    [Actually, gas stations often don’t sell maps at all! -Raymond]

    Really? I’m surprised. I took this pretty much for granted as Daniel did, at least in the US, based on any state I’ve ever been to, which include California and Nevada a the closest to Washington.

  37. Mike says:

    Bill – newflash.  People still die.  Last one I knew (two weeks ago) died in a traffic accident  while talking on a cell phone and driving.  Turn the damn things off in the car.

  38. Re: gas stations selling maps:

    In my (admittedly limited) experience, the chance that a gas station will sell maps is inversely proportional to its distance from a freeway.

  39. re: Maps says:

    The solution is to do what Raymond is saying and effing plan things. You’re going to another country on a lark and nobody’s been there before – do you not see the madness of just setting out and expecting things to be okay?

    Vancouver is safe and all that, but you don’t even know where anything is – go to pike’s place during the week and grab a map. Hell, grab one after you cross the border (there was a tourist bunker when I went a few years back – didn’t look new).

    MS is full of lots of smart people, half of which seem likely to get eaten by a bear at the company picnic.

  40. Malcolm says:

    Gosh, I even remember years ago, we didn’t even have a landline! Yes, we didn’t get a phone until … 1985 I think it was, when I was 12. Americans might think this a bit odd, but in the UK phones used to be expensive and you had to wait (sometimes months!) to get one connected. So, yeah, if I wanted to find someone … it was a case of go round and see them, or leave messages with other people who might bump into them. Youngsters nowadays can’t get the hang of this old-fashioned communication method; the practical application of social networking :D

    This persisted for several years after getting a phone, since not everyone I knew had a phone either of course…! [Including having to organise phoning people at specific times on public payphones. Kids nowadays would not get this kind of primitive arrangement]

    In fact it wasn’t until I caved in and finally got a mobile phone that such practices became rarer and rarer. Nowadays, about the only place I still do this is at work; working in IT, sometimes people can’t get their mail or phone to work, so I have to leave messages with other people to tell them to contact me…

  41. Martin says:

    I too can remember not having a landline until about 1979. It was a horrible beige thing with a proper dial.

    My first mobile was an analogue Nokia supplied by the company I worked for. For a while I so enamoured of the thing I didn’t realise I was being taken for a mug and they were ringing all hours of the day and night. I gave it back after a few months following a succession of lectures from the boss about not answering the thing or turning it off.

    After that I didn’t have one until the advent of the PAYG phones. Now I never go anywhere without it.

  42. anon says:

    Well, wayyy back when there were no cell phones, most people didn’t work in highrises or park in underground parking lots. So when there was a emergency, they were "on the ground" or very close to it, vertically. And of course, there werent many emergencies; People were more relaxed; Hospitals were far way; and we had emergencies by planning :)

  43. anon says:

    Jim’s comment reminds me of the cell phone rates in India…

    Ougoing local call: 0.02 cents a minute

    Incoming is always free.

    Local SMS

    International Outoing SMS from India to any country is 11 cents

    Incoming SMS is always free.

    Back in 1997, incoming and outgoing calls were 40 cents. And we thought it was expensive.

    See for rates

    "50p" means 50 "paise" a minute, which is half a rupee, which is .01 US cents, or 1/10 of a cent.

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