I come from a family of product innovators. My father, an avid slurper of soup, dreamed up the perfect soup bowl. It would have a spoon-sized depression at the bottom, so when you were down to the last little bit, you would press the spoon into the depression and end up with a perfectly empty bowl.
I invented the shaker-top salad dressing bottle years before Wishbone introduced one. It was 1967, and I, a hungry 9-year-old, had just accidentally dumped half a bottle of salad dressing on my wedge of iceberg. "Why can't they make the top like a salt shaker?" I yelled. My father, still giddy from solving his soup dilemma, shouted, "He's a chip off the old block."
We felt like two geniuses, taking our rightful place in the fraternity of American innovators: the Fords, Edisons and Bells, who at the turn of the last century were solving the basic problems of the late Industrial Age.
Here at the beginning of this new century, some of our most inventive minds are taking up new problems. Like how to take pictures with your cellphone.
How often have you cursed your cellphone because it wasn't a camera? I have cursed my cellphone for many things: for making me miss key words of my wife's instructions, for giving me a crucial voice-mail message a week after it was recorded, for having a battery with a life span shorter than my kid's attention span, for having national coverage that somehow doesn't include the one-mile radius around my house. But never have I cursed my phone for failing to take a picture.
But just turn on your TV for 10 minutes, day or night, and you will be tempted to forgive cellphones their shortcomings and run out to get a new one that allows you to humiliate people in your daily life.
For example, if you run into an old college buddy on the street dressed in a large vegetable outfit, apparently in his professional capacity as a restaurant mascot, you can immediately spread his embarrassment to all your old friends via your handy camera phone. Another commercial shows you how to send a picture of your friend's new boyfriend, his face slathered in food, as he eats like a pig in the local diner.
James E. Katz, a communications professor at Rutgers, has studied thousands of cellphone users and determined that the cellphone has blurred the nature of time. "It has erased the meaning of late," he has said. His research shows that people believe that if they call to change the plan, they're able to change being late to being on time.
They're also able to dream up plausible-sounding lies in real time. For example, your friend calls at the appointed time to say he's just five minutes away. He might even begin to establish an alibi by giving you a street location. Then, 15 minutes later, he calls to describe the longest funeral procession he's ever seen.
Now, armed with our camera phones, we can ask for proof. And maybe the fear of being caught in a lie will lead us back to punctuality. Then at least one of the things we curse our cellphones for will be gone.
Unless, of course, the liar tells you he can't send the picture because his battery, which has the life span of his kid's attention span, is running low.