July 22, 2019
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My Cell Phone

by Jonathan Wallace jw@bway.net

One night in the 1980's, walking down a street in the East Village, I saw my first portable phone: carried by a wealthy, decadent-looking club kid, it was the size of a briefcase.

Today, almost forty years later, anyone who takes the New York subway is familiar with the phenomenon of looking up and seeing that almost every passenger is staring at the screen of a phone. Some are listening to music. Most are texting. People younger than myself have a fluid, two thumbed style, where they seem to scroll endlessly down a line of messages, pause, type in a burst, scroll. This has become one of those ubiquitous body language things one used to associate with people lighting cigarettes or exercising.

It seems startling now that for the early years of my driving life (I was a late starter), I was ever comfortable getting into a car without a cell phone in case we had a breakdown, to provide GPS to navigate by, and to deliver my music to the stereo. The phone is such an integral part of a trip now that it annoys me when I am speaking to someone over the car stereo via Bluetooth while the GPS drowns them out with unnecessary invocations such as "Stay straight to continue on Route 495".

One use I make of my phone which perhaps not everyone does is I read books on it. I have never owned a Kindle or other e-reader. I take out library books, but I also use the Google Play Books app to download public domain works digitized by Google, which apparently sent blue-fingered elves (they scan their own fingers sometimes) to digitize every book in every university library in the world. I read Macaulay's History of England in its entirety on my phone. (I immodestly wonder how many humans on the planet can say the same, but will never know the answer.) I have been scolded by strange women my age on the subway for what reading books on a phone is doing to my eyes.

The most compelling app ever designed is Google Sky, which has now been offloaded by the company and is maintained by an admirable open source group. Standing under the dramatic stars visible from my dark home in Amagansett, I can hold the phone up to ascertain that I am looking at Jupiter and Saturn, and to confirm that M31 in Andromeda is visible tonight (its on my bucket list to see it through a telescope. I once spent a memorable evening looking for it with two friends and never succeeded.) (It's a galaxy.) You can hold the phone up to the ceiling of a conference room or elevator and it will tell you what invisible stars and planets are above.

I have owned music in four different media now, long playing records, cassette tapes, CD's and MP3's stored in the cloud for streaming. My ears are not sharp enough to detect any difference in sound quality. Today, I have an eclectic playlist of more than 400 songs which includes Eminem and a Tribe Called Quest, Kermit the Frog and Chopin. I mainly listen when I am driving long distances in the car.

Sounds like a miracle device, something which Tom Swift would have invented in the novels I prized as a child in the 1960's, right? I detest my cell phone and have imagined how I could have a life (almost) without it. Here's why.

First is the impact phones have had on community and interaction and daily experience. Couples and groups of friends involved with their phones instead of talking to each other don't seem like a wildly healthy phenomenon. People on boat trips take endless selfies instead of experiencing sun, wind and nature.

More importantly, the phone is a device which tracks you at all times and can easily be used to spy on you. The amount of data about where you have been, what you have bought, and what your interests are, is staggering. My news feed on my phone has become my major source of information (sad to say, partly displacing the New York Times I once read every day). I still am creeped out by the way it immediately spots and replicates my interests. I ordered and read one Anne Sexton book of poetry, and weeks later, my news feed is still offering me occasional articles on Sexton. I can't always tell why this is happening. The most acceptable explanation is that I did a Google search which resulted in my reading a Wikipedia article--though that is still disturbing. I can't say for sure that nothing ever shows up in my news feed as a result of my ordering a book on Amazon, or, worse, typing a section about a topic in my 7,211 page Mad Manuscript on the history of the idea of free speech. I really don't want Google to spy on what I am writing. If this seems unlikely, think how Gmail alerts you when you type the word "attached" in the body of an email but don't attach anything. Features that suggest, in an email or text, what you mean to say, what you want to write next, are based on what you have written before.

In Tom Swift's world, this kind of knowledge of my interests and needs would be benign. In my world, it is sinister--made even more so buy the fact that in Donald Trump universe, Homeland Security officials at the US border are increasingly demanding access to your phone.

I really started to distrust my phone when, at a friend's urging, I transitioned from an Android to an IPhone. Apple should enthusiastically welcome you, like a congregation accepting a reformed sinner. It does not.

My first sad discovery was that Google Sky did not work on the IPhone. I could no longer ascertain that Vega was overhead as I sat in someone's midtown office at noon.

When I tried to buy new songs for my playlist, the IPhone would not let me. I had to buy them from my laptop. Then I discovered I could no longer purchase movies or TV shows for streaming either. I could watch shows and listen to music once I had bought them on my computer.

Why was that happening? Your cellphone is not just a window to the world. The company that provides it, Google or Apple, wants to take a cut of everything you use it for, like the Mafia. You pay the local mob money just to operate a store, and then they get a cut on the merchandise delivered to you and your garbage carting service. Apple wanted a cut on the media I bought. Since I had come from the Google world, the cut wasn't available, so Apple wouldn't allow me to make the purchases on my IPhone. This actually put me in a disadvantaged position compared to the friend who had told me to buy the IPhone: she could buy media, and I could not. I felt that Apple did not actually want me, treated me with suspicion, like an unwelcome immigrant.

My local Verizon store in the Hamptons (which is not owned by the company, but a licensee) had not told me the phone I got was reconditioned, not new. I only found out when people commented that it had a black "home" button. It was an old phone, an IPhone X. Apple was no longer enthusiastically supporting it. The battery ran out in about three hours of use. When I took the 5:58 AM train into the city for a long day of work, the phone was almost dead by the time I arrived at Penn Station. I had to carry clunky back up batteries and plan my day around finding places to plug in. Then there was a scandal about Apple deliberately slowing down the old phones, and Apple tried to restore consumer confidence by offering a free battery upgrade. I got the upgrade and within months, the phone was again dying after three hours of use.

Then I noticed that Google searches were deadly slow. If I clicked on an article in my news feed, the time the phone took to deliver the text was so long I gave up.

What is the one app which should work perfectly on any phone? The phone app, of course. The IPhone froze and crashed when I used the visual voicemail feature. Much of the time after listening to a message, I had to turn the phone off and restart it.

The IPhone was a lemon.

I had never really spent much time in the Apple world. My only foray was the purchase of a used Macbook circa 2009 or so from another local vendor, who failed to tell me that the machine had a discontinued chip, and no new software would ever be available. Ten months later, I was back in the Windows world.

Apple is a magnificent ruin, like the Titanic half sunk. It has great service and an increasingly crappy product.

One of the reasons I was happy to get out of the Droid world was shitty service. I remember the exact moment when a Verizon store would no longer fix the phone they sold you. I was in Syracuse with a phone that would not charge. The Verizon sales guy verified that the charging port was bent, and, incredibly, recommended that I go to one of those independent (pirate) repair stores nearby. He looked regretfully at the phone and added insult to injury: "I could have swapped this out for a new phone for you, but there's a slight crack".

Phones that won't charge turned out to be a Thing. Bent charging ports are a common problem (and could be rather easily solved, I would guess, by not having them be ovals made of fragile metal). Sometimes, however, when your phone refuses to charge, it has detected that your charger was not manufactured by the company. In such cases, your phone is protecting a monopoly by declining to allow you to use Brand X.

The Apple Store with its "Genius Bar" was a tremendous relief. (Never mind how ill compensated the geniuses are). In my case, I could get excellent support for a terrible product. The existence of the store kept me in the Apple world a year longer than I would have stayed otherwise. But when it became clear the phone was irredeemable, and I wanted to upgrade, there was no way to do so for less than $700 or so.

I am certain that my cellphone contains no technology which is not also in a tablet I can buy for $150. Full disclosure, I was unaware that I could walk in to a Best Buy and get a much cheaper Brand X phone.

I decided to go back to the Droid world. (My friend was inconsolable.) I read about the Google Pixel 3A, a full service, well reviewed smartphone for $400. I walked into a Best Buy for the first time, feeling very nervy--and was told, ten minutes in to my conversation with the salesperson, that they could not hook me up to Verizon, because my wife, on her last visit to the store in Bridgehampton, had been persuaded to switch us over to a business account. "We can only set up personal accounts", she said regretfully.

So I did what I swore I would never do again, and went back in to the Verizon store. I asked if they could sell me a Pixel 3A. They said yes. I already knew from prior experience that Verizon would not let me buy it outright, for cash. Verizon insists that it must lend you at least some money to buy your phone. On the other hand, that amount can be as little as twenty five cents. A few minutes later, I had a new phone, for which I had put down $399.75.

As always seems to happen, some of my contacts, including some very old and needed ones, vanished when I transitioned back from Apple to Droid. Why in the complicated ecosystem some contacts end up being stored locally, or in some other part of the cloud, apart from all your others, I will never understand.

One of the first things I did was download Google Sky. And I am happy to be able to buy music and video again. The new phone (when I was mindful to set it to an energy saving status) has lasted a day and a night before it died.

Apple was incompetent; Google is merely evil (how ironic that their old slogan was "Don't be evil").

Here is the punch-line: Verizon connectivity is crappy, and seems to be becoming more so. I grew up in a world of landlines, which were almost perfectly reliable.The number of incidents of static on the phone, or a dropped call, were vanishingly small, and most often attributable to a bad handset, rather than the line itself.

On a constant quest to simplify, I got rid of my landline twelve or so years ago. My cell phone has been my only connection, for personal conversation and business, since. Now, the quality of service has become so terrible that I gave in and ordered a landline again. It felt like a shameful retreat.

Where I live, Amagansett, I have a very poor Verizon connection these days. People frequently can't hear me ("You're breaking up"). Every call of twenty minutes or more eventually drops, some several times. My cell phone service has essentially become unusable for business or even personal calls.

I decided not to buy my landline from Verizon. Cablevision, my cable provider, used to bother me with weekly phone calls asking when they could install the free landline to which my cable package entitled me. I went into their store in Southampton and the young salesperson handed me a new modem and a handwritten phone number she had assigned me. I went home and hooked it up and could get no dial tone. I also couldn't get Internet for 24 hours, but that's another essay.

My wife made an abortive service call in which the tech person blamed the handset we bought. I then spent an hour on the phone with tech support, solving several problems, and the human on the other end embarrrassedly told me that my new phone number had never been "provisioned" to the modem. This was apparently not a trivial problem; she put me on hold several times to talk to supervisors, and then came back to tell me that it would take twenty four hours to fix and that the phone would suddenly come on line.

This tech person was exemplary. I have rarely spoken to someone who seemed so personally invested in solving my problem. Once, an American Express tech, after patiently listening to me rant for a long time late at night, said to me: "Sir, I am only a cog in the wheel." This young woman, too, eager as she was to help, was also only a cog in the wheel. My phone service never came online. A week later, when I dial my new number, I get the recording saying it is not in service. I have postponed making the next service call; I resent spending another hour on the phone. Also, getting my landline going will not solve my problem; perhaps due to the effects of summer overpopulation out here, my Internet service has started to drop once an hour or so. I will probably have to buy a landline from Verizon after all.

It turns out I cannot buy Internet service from anyone but Cablevision, though. Verizon does not offer FIOS out here.

There is an argument that we are all to blame for shitty service in the Hamptons; every time a town proposes a new cell tower, everyone gets up in arms about it. However, my Verizon calls drop everywhere: on the Long Island Expressway and in Times Square. In huge stretches of Manhattan in the middle of the day, I can't get a decent signal.

I am old enough to remember all the controversy over Bell Telephone in the 1960's and the Baby Bells through the 1980's. Antitrust enforcement (ever heard of it?) forced the phone company to allow other providers to sell you your handset. The Baby Bells were not allowed to monopolize other services like Internet. Even as recently as the Bush administration (I say tentatively, not really sure of the timing here) I remember hearing that the Department of Justice was forcing all the cell phone providers to use a standard charger. Now, every time I get a phone, I have to get new chargers.

Antitrust law seems to have been completely forgotten. It would not have allowed almost everything I have complained of in this essay: Apple refusing to let me buy media from my IPhone; a phone declining to be charged by a third party product; Verizon insisting on leasing, not selling, a phone; the ridiculously high price of phones compared to tablets; the fact that Best Buy could not set me up with my Verizon business account; and possibly (at least as an indirect effect) even Verizon refusing to repair the phones it sold. Google, Apple and Verizon are all effectively monopolies in a world that is increasingly assuming a medieval configuration, in which we, the customers, are serfs. For me the iconic image of Late Capitalism will always of course be airline security beating passengers.

The word "consumer", which has been in use at least since the 1950's, is exemplary sophistry, because it really means "the consumed".

I have a vision, which I may carry out one day, of buying a burner phone to keep in the car in case I have a breakdown. I would buy a phone number from Skype or find some similar solution, so that I can use a $150 tablet or my laptop as my phone. I would have to solve my Cablevision Internet access problem in Amagansett, though.

Due to monopoly power and the arrogance of companies like Apple, Verizon and Cablevision (Google, as I said, is a different kind of problem), we live in a world in which the new normal is that nothing works, which feels like the Third World. Since people only twenty or thirty years old have effectively never been grown ups in any different environment, there is a widespread complacency about the unreliability of the technology on which we depend, which is not possible for those of us old enough to have lived in a more reliable time.

An hour later: On a quick re-read, this essay reminds me of the old but classic joke about the food at Mom's Diner: It's terrible. And the portions are way too small.