In 1999 I Fell in Love With The Nokia 3210, And I’m Still Chasing That High
My first mobile phone was a Philips Fizz. It was 1996, I was editing a small street press rag in Wollongong and I was upgrading from a pager. It could make calls and not much else. When I answered it in public I’d hunch over apologetically and hide behind my hair, whispering things like “I’m outside” or “I’m on a bus” before hanging up and hoping no one had noticed. The only cool thing about it was the fact you could the pull aerial out with your teeth like it was an episode of The X-Files.
This is categorically not a story about that phone. I want to talk about the one I got in 1999 instead.
Just to make sure we’re all on the same page, let me be utterly clear: 1999 was a hell of a year. It was the year we met Jar Jar Binks. It was the year we said goodbye to Hey Hey It’s Saturday.
We were being forced, often unwillingly, into living La Vida Loca in the wickey wild, wicky wicky wild wild wild west and if you have no idea what I’m talking about then honestly you missed nothing of any significance.
In 1999 we were being told that we should be shit-scared of technology. Y2K was going to have planes plummeting from the skies and — worse — you wouldn’t be able to get cash from an ATM which is how money still happened back then. The robots were going to plug us into virtual reality and turn us into a really super inefficient power source. The Melissa virus was killing your PC and Napster was putting the poor old music industry (just a small collection of humble artisans already *struggling* to get by) into freefall.
At the same time (often even in the same breath) technology was going to save us. The rise of the Netizen was going to break down social and geographical boundaries to great a global culture of love and respect. The Transhumanists were preparing to upload themselves and the Extropians thought we were on the cusp of a major evolutionary leap for humanity.
(And yes, as I type this, I realise that although the names have changed, we still feel the confusing dualism about technology even 20 years later — except these days we think most online communities belong in the bad pile.)
In amongst all this techno-fearmongering and searching for a digital saviour, we met the Nokia 3210 and it was love at first sight. People will rave and rant about the 3310, but forget that rubbish. The Nokia 3210 was nigh-on perfection and as we learn time and time again, the sequel is never as good as the original. (The only exceptions are Hellboy, Blade and Jeepers Creepers.)
No one had really cared about a mobile phone before. We had them but they were just… there. The design always seemed perfunctory, the aesthetics workmanlike. They were crude tools with a purpose — a hammer for communication — and we treated them with the same level of excitement.
The Nokia 3210 changed that.
The screen was small, the battery life was immense and none of that mattered. Because the Nokia 3210 was the first phone that anyone ever considered cool. The first phone where aesthetics mattered. The first phone with a cultural cachet.
As a society, we embraced it.
As an individual I fucking loved it.
Back in my day
In 1999 I was, like approximately 88 percent of anyone in Sydney who was under 30 at the time, working for a dotcom. With the benefit of hindsight, the entire dotcom bubble was farcical. Companies with zero revenue were worth untold amounts, even in the total absence of anything vaguely resembling a plan for making money. Pretty much the whole thing was a sham. Complete bullshit. A house of cards where we were lying about having any cards in the first place. Just people with naff haircuts pointing at a completely empty table and saying “look at the fucking wonder we have built”.
The company I worked for curated specialist content for people who were getting their internet through this new broadband thing. It came over a cable and you didn’t have to stay off the phone when using it, so that was cool. It allowed people like us to design incredibly bloated websites with animated menus and Shockwave games and other things absolutely nobody had been asking for. On a good day you might have to take off your shoes to calculate the audience figures — but only on really good days.
The 3210 had something ineffable about it, some inchoate cool that made you want to customise it.
At the time we felt like royalty but in reality, we were just cashed-up children. I was 25, I had stock options and was earning what felt like a fortune. I proceeded to get over my head in such insane credit card debt I was in my late 30s when I finally surfaced but that’s a story for a totally different time.
There was a distinctive look to anyone working in a dotcom — what I recall is a melange of short sleeve button down Ben Shermans and pants that looked like they were made of grey crepe paper. I rode a goddamn folding scooter and had an asymmetrical backpack.
I remember the backpack particularly, because when I came back from the Vodafone store with my Nokia 3210, resplendent in all its grey and slightly different grey glory I was utterly dismayed that it was just slightly too big to fit in the specialty phone pocket on my asymmetrical backpack.
But it was all worth it for the other benefits.
The legacy of the Nokia 3210
These days, people really seem to obsess about the battery life of the 3210 but the truth is we didn’t care about that in 1999. Your phone lasted for days and that’s just the world worked. A one-inch monochrome screen isn’t exactly sucking down the amps after all.
Other people crow about the games — there were actually three, but people only remember Snake — and that was cool. Previously you were forced to read a book while waiting for public transport but finally we had a reason to stare at a screen for a change. (And in fairness it has seemed like, as a society, we were absolutely desperate for that opportunity.)
But for me, it was all about the clip-on covers. Officially the name for these was the Xpress-On but even then, we felt embarrassed about that. And no, the 3210 wasn’t the first Nokia to let you customise the look of your phone. The 5110 was the first but honestly, no cared about that phone. It’s lost to history and good riddance to it.
The 3210 had something ineffable about it, some inchoate cool that made you want to customise it. And shops sprung up everywhere to flog off these pieces of plastic joy which seemed unlimited in their scope.
It wasn’t just colours and patterns you could get — there were themes a-plenty. Favourite footy team? There was a cover for that. Favourite brand of beer? Too easy. Edgy weed-themed cover to hack off your parents? Not a problem. Cartoon characters and breakfast cereals and chocolates bars and bands. All available. I even remember my friend Kel and I spending a day scouring the phone shops to find the perfect, upsettingly detailed, Buffy themed cover for her fandom.
Me? Animal print was my drug of choice, specifically zebra skin. I owned a pair of fuzzy zebra print pants on weekends I’d pair these with a second-hand fake fur coat feel like Tyler Durden or something equally cringe-worthy. I liked that my phone matched my pants and I loved that people would comment it, which was the whole point of exercise after all.
I don’t remember when I finally moved on from the 3210 nor what happened to that handset, which as one of natures hoarders, is weird for me. But I know it would be another five years before another phone even came close to giving me a similar level of buzz and that was the Motorola Razr V3. (The fur pants were long gone but I think we were all wearing hoodies with suit jackets? Maybe?)
Anyway, two decades on and the 3210 leaves a legacy that even the multiple deaths of Nokia as a brand can’t wash away. Which is more than can be said for nearly anything else from that weird, weird year.