Low End Theory

Hit Me on My Pager, Now and Forever


By Brendan I. Koerner

Among my myriad faults as a writer, one of the biggies is my tendency to make sweeping statements that, upon further reflection, probably deserved a few qualifiers. I was about to make the same mistake with this week's column; thank the Lord that I was struck with a terrible cold, and as a result ingested some pseudoephedrine-laced medicine that helped refocus my mind. So instead of foolishly declaring that the continued popularity of the one-way, numeric pager is entirely inexplicable, I will now argue that the continued popularity of the one-way, numeric pager proves that you can't keep a good low-end product down.

I'm not talking here about those fancy Nextel two-ways, of the sort favored by teenagers whose high schools ban cellphones. Nor do I mean the broad-screened alphanumeric one-way of the mid-to-late 1990s, which laid the groundwork for the world's acceptance of SMS. The topic here is the humble "beeper," the boxy little gizmo bolted to many a hip during the Reagan years, and capable of nothing grander than displaying 10 to 12 digits worth of information. This is the gadget that Low End Theory demi-gods A Tribe Called Quest once glorified with the immortal rhetorical question: "Do you know the importance of a Skypager?" And it's a gadget that continues to sell in the era of the cheap Razr, for a trio of reasons that will be revealed after the jump. PLUS: An expert reader provides a quickie lesson on Spartan politics!

The most obvious reason that the beeper persists, and the reason that most endears it to Low End Theory, is price: most any strip-mall wireless hut will toss in a free Motorola Bravo LX ("designed to meet the needs of the active professional") when you sign up for network activation. Heck, they probably won't even do a credit check, given that your monthly bill will doubtless top out at $10. So consumers cursed with particularly virulent strains of Short-Arms-Deep-Pockets Syndrome (SADPS), or those who got in hawkhock to MasterCard on their last trip to Atlantic City, need not become inaccessible when T-Mobile rejects their cellphone application. As long as you've got a pocketful of quarters at all times, you're always reachable for a relative pittance.

But you're not only reachable on the street. You're also reachable in the bowels of your office building, or in that one weird nook in your apartment where Sprint PCS seems to flicker out. (Quick complaint from a onetime Sprint PCS customer: How can I be roaming in my own kitchen?) The fact of the matter is that many paging protocols tend to be more reliable than commercial cell coverage, and so they're pretty handy for folks in mission-critical positions. This surely isn't news to Gizmodo's vast audience of IT professionals, many of whom never abandoned the old-fashioned beeper (albeit only if their bosses were too cheap to upgrade to alphanumerics).

Then, as fans of the first season of The Wire know all-too-well, there's the anonymity factor. Because of the aforementioned ease with which a beeper and its attendant service can be purchased, you can make it so that your personal info isn't connected to the beeper number—just pay in cash at your local cell hut, and you're good to go. No monthly roster of incoming numbers is kept, and there's not much threat of letting sensitive information slip on a one-line LCD screen. Hence pagers are a prime example of how the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle tangentially applies to information security: the more sophisticated equipment comes, the more it can be exploited by eavesdroppers and other undesirables. Bug? Feature? All that's moot with the humble ol' beeper.

I know I promised just three reasons, and that you're probably well bored by now. But let me throw one more out there, on the aesthetic vibe: the time to exploit the ironic retroness of the 1980s beeper has finally come, what with the impending release of the Miami Vice movie. You will totally be the life of the party if you stroll in somewhere with a cherry-colored Motorola LS550 strapped to your hip, believe me. Plus, if you rock it long enough, you can start swapping in this nifty pager cam from time to time—the perfect accessory for anyone whose perversion of choice is grainy belt shots. As Tribe so eloquently put it back in the day, "The 's' in Skypage really stands for sex."

SPARTA WINS: Apologies for the relative brevity of this week's column but, as mentioned in the first graf, I'm dealing with a monster cold at the moment—feel like I've been operating underwater for the past 36 hours. So no low-end wrap-up in this space, just a quick classics lesson in reference to last week's Quasar column. Towards the end, I noted that "only ancient Sparta had a higher ratio of soldiers to citizens" than the Alamo city.

A Low End Theory reader with a degree in ancient history—we're not all mech-eng nerds, yo—wrote in with a fascinating tidbit. Turns out that San Antonio really loses out on the citizen-to-soldiers sweepstakes, since the ratio in Sparta was 1:1; only fighting men could be full-fledged citizens. If you weren't willing to bludgeon an Athenian once in a while, you were either a serf/slave or a woman. Yes, I realize that this system doesn't exactly jibe with our current notions of individual liberty. Don't shoot the messenger. (Thanks, Ben)

Brendan I. Koerner is a contributing editor at Wired and a columnist for both The New York Times and Slate. His Low End Theory column appears every Thursday on Gizmodo.

Read more Low End Theory