I bought my cell phone about six years ago on sale at Target. It is not a smart phone. In fact, it’s a very dumb phone: no camera, no music, no apps. It flips open and only has an alpha-numeric phone keyboard, so texting would be a challenge, if I texted. It’s also a no-contract phone, which if you’ve ever seen any incarnation of the NCIS, CSI, or Law and Order television shows means it’s a “burner phone.”
Untraceable. Disposable. What criminals and terrorists use, not nice suburban Susie Homemakers.
Except that it’s not untraceable. I had to register the phone when I activated it. I could’ve lied, but so could anyone with a contract cell phone. And disposable? It was cheap for a cell phone, but it still cost money. It’s not like the phone is made from tissue paper.
Yet the term “burner phone” has crept into our cultural vocabulary as shorthand for a cheap, untraceable, disposable cell phone that criminals use and if you or I have one, we must be up to no good. We use this type of shorthand all the time to communicate a whole bunch of information quickly. But convenient shorthand can evolve into unfair stereotypes, leaving us scrambling when our seemingly innocent words cause offense.
I’m noticing our cultural shorthand a lot now that the election and holiday shopping seasons are in full swing. Funny how closely those sales pitches line up. And how badly served we are when we rely on shorthand to communicate big ideas.
For the record, I have a prepaid cell phone because most of my calls consist of me dialing to say this to one of my kids, “Where are you? I’ve been waiting half an hour. You’ve got 10 minutes and then I’m leaving. You can walk home.” Don’t need any shorthand, an iPhone, or a $100 monthly contract for that.