Cell Phone Users Through History

When I was a kid, if you wanted to playact "talking on the phone," you bent your three middle fingers, extended your pinky and thumb, and stuck that configuration to your ear. Alternatively, if you had a banana at hand, you'd stick the banana to your ear because that's what phones looked like.

Now, we have a new set of gestures. Mobile phones have changed how we shape our hands when we hold them to our ears. We form cradles for our thin, rectangular gadgets; there is no pinky or thumb extension. Sometimes, we don't even have to involve the ears! We just cradle with the left and tap, poke, swipe with the right.

We all know these gestures, and now that we do, we're finding them in times past. Most recently, a kooky Belfast fillmmaker got millions of people excited that there was a time traveler in the video extra of a Charlie Chaplin movie. Why? Because she was holding something to her ear, as if that gesture could be nothing but what it has come to in the last five years.

Two professors at Swinburne University of Technology in Melbourne have been exploring this whole phenomenon, what they (half-ironically?) call The Secret Gestural Prehistory of Mobile Devices. Lisa Gye and Darren Tofts have gone back through old magazines to find people making gestures like the ones that we make when we're holding our phones. Then, they take photos of those photos with their phones (stay with me here!), append funny captions, and post them in all their anachronistic glory.

"These images are suggestive of gestural rhythms that synchronize the hand, the ear, the eye and the mouth. In this they foreshadow the potential media that will, in time, resolve these postural gestures into a meaningful function: the immediate and continuous communion with unseen and absent others," Gye and Tofts wrote. "In some instances the confluence of the gestural ergonomics of mobility is so compelling that a telephonic or SMS scenario is the only explanation possible. Beyond fancy, fabulation or anachronistic conceit, such images are prehistories of an improbable banality that, today, is all too familiar."

Allow me to guarantee that you're going to love these photos. And there are dozens more at their site.

Via Erik Davis.

Presented by

Alexis Madrigal & Nicholas Jackson

Alexis C. Madrigal is a contributing editor for The Atlantic. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. Nicholas Jackson is a former associate editor at The Atlantic.

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