Sept. 11 Anniversary and Phones

A picture of World Trade Center on 9/11/2001 and it says 9/11 phone calls from the towers. This looks back on the anniversary of Sept. 11 to phones at that time.
Sept. 11 Anniversary and Phones

This week, on the anniversary of Sept. 11 terrorist attack, we take a Dear Smartphone “time out” to consider how emergency communications have transformed over the two decades since. The inspiration is three-fold:  in last week’s column, a reader lamented the difficulty of getting emergency services in a remote, wooded area; during the week, Apple announced two new I-phone features, vehicle crash detection and satellite service, that will update today’s emergency services.  Third, here on the anniversary of 9-11, we forget that most of us did not have cell phones back in 2001 and that changed everything in terms of our news and emergency response.

Perhaps the most poignant memory from that day is of downtown office workers fleeing the burning World Trade Center on foot, streaming over the Brooklyn Bridge. There are throngs of people rushing out, looking confused, lost, and shocked. Some of the women and men carry purses or briefcases but none of these rushing pedestrians have phones in their hand. When they got off the bridge and reached safer grounds, they would need to find a wired phone or send an email. Back in 2001 the most popular cell phone was the Nokia 3310. These phones were expensive and not an everyday household item. 

But, people needed to connect. So, in 2001 lists were posted physically on buildings and also online with the names of people who were missing both short term, or long term. Again, the emergency system relied on using wired phones and email. Text messages, with luck one that read “I am safe”, were not yet a feature but AT&T introduced it in November of that year. Conceivably it was a feature that the company had planned to debut and the World Trade Center debacle brought urgency to that.


Some  of the deceased were not without mobile phones. In-seat phones were used by passengers on the American and United flights who witnessed their hijacked aircraft. On United Flight 93, thirteen passengers and crew members placed a total of 37 calls, 35 of them from Airfones located on the back seats. Their haunting final conversations are recorded and can be played back.

But, the most haunting memory of that day is not the voice recordings but the pictures. There is one of the second airplane about to hit the Twin Tower, the two buildings obscured in smoke flames, and doomed workers jumping from upper story windows.  Later on, there would be countless images of a waving American flag, fearless first responders, and NYFD cleaning up the rubble. It’s hard to imagine today, but none of these pictures were taken by casual bystanders pulling out their iPhone or Android devices. It took until 2008 and beyond for better picture-taking capability  to be fully integrated into phones. In 2001 the state-of-the-art was a Samsung phone that could take 20 photos with a 0.35 megapixel resolution. Fortunately, there were other sources on 9-11. Downtown Manhattan did not lack for tourists with conventional SLR cameras, there were newscasters and photojournalists in the vicinity, and security officers on the beat. 

These pictures were then shared over newscasts and in newspapers. Broadcast news began filming minutes after the first plane crash and they suspended all other coverage that day. But notably, stories and pictures did not rebroadcast on social media since the likes of Facebook and Twitter did not emerge until nearly twelve years later. Today, pictures from bystanders would be posted in seconds, unfolding news would be sent out in small tweets or lines of text, and there would be a corresponding flare of person-to-person commentary, rumor, emotional outpouring, communal shock, and perhaps panic.


Most likely, today’s young adults have a disconnect. They may learn about 9-11 in school or from their family but have a hard time imagining how different communications were at that time.” B.C.” (before cell phones) people who made it to safety had to wait to find a way to connect and let their loved ones know they where ok. People trapped in the rubble may have died without this capability. So today, 9/11/2022 – emergency communications are vastly improving, as witnessed this week with brand new notification features on the iPhone. Is the world getting safer? It’s hard to know.

In closing, a touch of irony about shared history and memories, “A.C.” (after cell phones). A firefighter who lost his brother on Sept. 11 visited the 9-11 Memorial in New York City, which opened in 2011. At this somber site there are reflecting pools and alongside, etched in stone, the individual names of the people who lost their lives. The firefighter, in his own post, found phone media to be intrusive and callous. He bemoaned the visitors armed with selfie-sticks that visit the Monument, pose, say cheese, smile, click and share.

Dog Monitor on Phone?

A tale of the data dog…tail wagging data.

A dog holding a picture of himself on a phone screen. Cute! From petmagazine. Would a dog monitor on phone be useful?
A Dog Monitor on Phone?

Dear Ms. Smartphone: During the pandemic I was able to work from home and I got the love of my life, a four-footed stray called Bella. She is half Shepherd and half Retriever. Now I have to go back to the City and can’t take her with me.  I miss her and wonder what she does all day. So I installed a web-cam and now I am thinking of adding a next step, a dog monitor on my phone. It attaches to her collar and sends. Then I will know if she is keeping active during the day, not just when I drop in with the camera. My mother who lives a few blocks away thinks that this is crazy. Cade, Napa

Dear Cade: I surely appreciate that your generation is finding new and creative opportunities for tech.  Yet I don’t see the need for either the camera or the dog monitor on phone. For thousands of years  pets have survived without digital tools, and it’s not clear that they are going to survive better with them!

The web cam seems harmless for Bella but I wonder what it is doing for you. When you are at work and you check  back home you are dividing your attention. Phone distraction is subtle. This well cited , but now pop-science study says that an interruption may set you back  twenty plus minutes before you can fully return to your original task. Furthermore, looking at Bella remotely could be emotionally unsettling.  You may feel a loss since you cannot continue the quality time you spent together during the pandemic.

Bella’s P.O.V:

Now consider it from Bella’s perspective. She has no idea that she is being watched on a web cam so it does not improve her situation at all. And, while the tracking device will report how much she exercised, ate, and drank, you can do some of that measurement when you get home from work. Did she empty the bowl? Record this on your own. There is also, I suppose, a tech element to consider. An electronic device fitted to her collar might feel strange to her and the little colored buttons may start blinking for a battery recharge. They could be bothersome.

These dog monitoring devices are fairly new. One I found online said that, “it collects and shares over 150 samples of your pet’s movement every second.” The app promises to tell whether the pet’s behavior is changing after it establishes a baseline. I am not sure how that data will improve the quality of life for either you or Bella. On the back end of this app, I would check out the privacy statement. Since they will be collecting mounds of data, do they sell Bella’s vitals to an outside company or compile a salable list of high tech pet owners?

Seek In-Person First:

If you seek wellness care, say  Bella is doing excessive licking or scratching it’s best if you try to get some face to face information here, not just online. You might find help at a local pet store (usually very informed) or at the dog park with other owners. And, you might want to look into pet insurance for those emergency, last-minute trips to the vet. Ultimately, that might be a better long-term investment than the tracking device. 

Your question is really one about technology. It reminds me that In the 1990’s the Japanese invented a “virtual” pet called Tamaguchi. It was popular with tweens everywhere. The pet owner received ongoing messages throughout the day (via email?) that reminded them to feed their pet, take it out for “exercise”and clean up the poop. Today virtual pets are far more sophisticated.

Artificial Intelligence has tried to capture the companionship of household pets for lonely people or those with memory-loss issues, often seniors. Virtual dogs (and cats) are placed in nursing homes for residents who need emotional connections. Since you lucky enough to have the real thing, but might be short on time, consider some alternatives. Leave the pet with your Mom during the day, drop her off at pet daycare, or simply accept that Bella will be OK. There’s no doubt that some version of this product, say to measure your own wellness and activity, is high on the list for the quantified culture.

Snapchat? Should I Subscribe?

A cartoon pane of two boys on Snapchat, the app. Subscriptions to channels are free but now the app offers a subscription. How confusing!
Snapshot? Should I subscribe?

Dear Ms. Smartphone: My tween asked to use my credit card so she could get a Snapchat subscription. It’s only $3.99 a month but I don’t understand the need and she did not explain it to me very clearly. When I went on their web site I was even more confused since it seems like a free app. She mostly uses the app with a group of her girlfriends from school. So Snapchat, should I subscribe? Luna, Mill Valley

Dear Luna: I have some ideas for a subscription that you will hopefully find useful but first let me mention two preliminaries. As a parent, you should be aware of the map feature on Snapchat. Some users call it “creepy.” Enabled by default, the map allows any of your daughter’s friends to see her exact GPS location when she last opened the app. This is accurate enough to determine your home address.Not good! However, it can be disabled in the app’s settings. Second you did not mention the age of your tween but note that the legal age to open a Snapchat account is thirteen. 

Now, back to subscriptions. Snapchat is following in the footsteps of Twitter and Telegram with the subscription offer. It would be a good idea in my opinion if social media companies used monthly subscriptions to show us fewer ads, and if they agreed to not sell our data and tighten up their privacy policies. So far that has not happened. These premium subscriptions are geared towards power users and frequent viewers who value more custom features. 

Cosmetic Upgrades?:

A few years ago I wrote a column on a for-fee feature on Snap that let the user select custom stickers and text. The Verge, which has reviewed the current subscription offering finds similar changes.  They called the new subscription a “mostly cosmetic upgrade.” The $3.99 subscription will let users change the app’s icon, see who watched a story multiple times, and pin a friend at the top of the chat history as a BFF. That doesn’t sound like a lot for $3.99 a month, but there are probably other reasons that your tween or teen would favor it. Perhaps they want to be the first in their social group to try it out and/or they are a power user who plans to  demonstrate advanced skills and expertise with the app.

Last I checked, a subscription is a product or service we pay for on a reoccurring basis, say for Internet service or our phone plans. Snap, on the other hand, obfuscates the meaning of a subscription. With their free account you can interact with friends you personally knew, or post a subscription channel. In that case stories go to different viewers, not just friends. For instance, Snap allows a subscription channel for your dog and doggie pictures you select go out to anyone who cares to follow. These subscribers would be unlikely to follow your personal content. Snapchat also offers the opportunity to “subscribe” to a big, outside media channel. News outlets, like the UK Daily Mail, have popular subscriptions on Snapchat.  Note the multiples types of Snap ‘subscriptions’!

A Better Subscription:

So, while Snapchat has had subscriptions for free and now a new one for fee,  I have a suggestion for an entirely better one. For  marginally larger fee you can sign your tween up for an online subscription to your local newspaper, or a national one. I would recommend you consider this because the news feed we get on social media is highly personalized yet incomplete. Social media sites construct feeds with content that matches the users’ point of view to keep them engrossed and sell more ads. It’s called a filter bubble.  Newspapers have less imperative to select content this way and they actually employ journalists to write the stories they post! Newspaper reporting is usually the basis for most of the watered down feeds your daughter will read on Snapchat and other social media.  So, it’s valuable to expose her to the original stories and get her in the habit of reading a daily paper. If you are planning to get the $3.99 subscription to Snap then I think you owe it to your daughter to spend a little more each month and get a subscription with depth and analysis. It doesn’t sounds like this would present a hardship but be aware that your local library or school will have a subscription service to the newspaper on offer- something that Snapchat does not!