Thursday, October 18, 2018

The Tyranny of the Smart Phone

Once you buy a smart phone, you are obligated to buy another one and another one, indefinitely.  Or at least that is what they want you to do.

If you have read my blog over the last decade (brave soul!) you realize I hate smart phones with a passion.  I was dragged, kicking and screaming, into the 21st Century and was finally forced - and I mean forced - to buy one, as so many transactions today require it, particularly if you travel a lot.  Dragging a laptop to an internet cafe gets really old, really fast, when you just want to check your bank account balance.

I don't like smart phones.  I don't like what they do to people. I don't like what they do to drivers, either.  And we all know you are texting, too, just from the way you drive (wandering in the lane, failing to maintain constant speed, failing to notice the light is green) so stop pretending you aren't by looking down at your lap all the time.  Hell, just the other day we saw a lady plow into the back of a pickup truck while texting.  She panicked and hit the gas, her tires smoking as she drove her Honda under the back bumper of the truck.   And all this time, she was holding that damn phone in her hand.

But most of all, I don't like what the smart phone (or even the old-fashioned cell phone) does to me.  I find myself looking at it more and more and reading books less and less.   I find myself going back like a monkey in a Skinner box, looking for that diminishing reward over and over again.  It is a brain-reprogramming tool, plain and simple.  It changes the way you think, and I know this because the people who created these tech nightmares have said so.  Facebook, in particular, has changed the very nature of humanity - almost unnoticed.   But I'll get back to those fuckers later on.

In a way, the way they sell smart phones is like leasing cars.  The car companies would rather you leased a brand-new car every 2-3 years, because they sell a lot of cars this way and make a lot of money.  It costs you a lot of money, though, but a surprising number of people do this.  And back in the day - before leasing was a thing for personal vehicles - a lot of people would "trade in" their cars on a similar time-line, squandering thousands of dollars in the process.

But if you are smart and astute, you can buy a secondhand car and take care of it and drive it forever.  You end up saving thousands of dollars and oddly enough, have fewer headaches, as you worry less about getting your fancy new car scratched or whatever. 

And with smart phones, a similar plan of action was also possible.  You can buy a cheap off-lease phone (and that is really all they are, is leased, if you trade them in every few years) on eBay for $99 or so (a lot less than a new phone for $1000!).   Put in your SIM chip and a memory card and you're off to the races.   Years ago we bought a pair of Samsung Galaxy S4 phones, used, on eBay.  They work fine.  Mark has a data plan on his, and I piggyback off it using the WiFi hotspot feature.  We pay about $40 a month, all told.   There are probably even cheaper ways to do this.  And of course, WiFi hotspots are still free in a lot of places - but getting harder and harder to find these days, as I noted before.

But trouble appears on the horizon.   The first inkling that I was going to be screwed was when Capital One updated its "app" for the phone.  It required me to update to continue, and when I clicked on "update" it took me to the Google Play store where I was informed that the new Capital One app was no longer compatible with my lame-ass old phone.

Oh, well, I can always check the balance by going to the website.  A pain in the ass, but it is a workaround.

Here in sunny San Diego, I thought we would try to rent a convertible for a few days as a treat.   I looked online, and the big-3 rental agencies want astronomical prices.  So I thought I would try one of these peer-to-peer rental agencies, such as Turo.  I sign up and log in and rent a car - or so I thought.  We are all set to go (with a few glitches - Bank of America immediately flags the transaction as fraud, as Turo puts a $1 hold on the card first, mimicking the actions of real fraudsters).

But then when I log in again, it says, "you must install the Turo app in order to pick up the car".   So off again to the Google Play store and once again, I am informed that my old phone is not compatible with their new app.   I am locked out of commerce because I have an older phone.  It is a scary thought.

And this may extend to brick-and-mortar purchases.   While my old phone has one of the earliest Near Field Communication chips installed, like most Beta releases, it might not work right or at all with some of these "swipe and pay" applications coming to the fore, where you can use your phone to check out at the grocery store or the mall.   I will end up like that annoying little old lady who pays by check, and takes an hour to write it out - or counts out pennies from her change purse.   Yea, that's me, the old fart.  Upgrade or get old - those are your choices!

By the way, one of those "only in California" things - the homeless here beg while texting or talking on their smart phones.  Will Rodgers once said that only in America could you drive to the poorhouse.   And today, you can drive to the poorhouse while texting, apparently.  But seriously, many "homeless advocates" and advocates for the poor have argued that the increasing important of an online presence in commerce has made it harder for the poor to interact with society - and find job listings, perform financial transactions, and so on.  This may have once been the case, but apparently smart phone penetration has trickled down to even the homeless and beggars on the street corners.  And what do you bet, they have a newer phone than I do?

Now to be fair, I could go online and buy a newer phone (at least two generations newer) on eBay for the same $99 I paid years ago for my old one.   They are up to at least Galaxy 9 by now, so Galaxy 6's and maybe even 7's might be found cheap.  But what does the new phone do that my old one wouldn't?   Oh, right, run all those new apps.

I've seen this pattern before somewhere, but I just can't put my finger on it.  Oh, yes, that's right, the same game was played on us with personal computers.   The new software won't run very well (or at all) on your old PC - you have to upgrade to a new one!   I spent countless frustrating hours and dollars trying to upgrade older PCs or building my own new ones, just to run the latest version of Windows.  I realized later on that most of the programs I already owned were working just fine, thank you, and there was no reason to upgrade.   Good old Microsoft took note of this and created this new ".docx" format in an effort to force people to upgrade.

Today, they have Windows 10, and it basically is a subscription service.  You buy the computer and rent the software on a monthly basis - storing your data in their "cloud".   On the cruise we recently went on (Holland America) one of the "activities" offered onboard was training in Windows 10.  They had an entire room set up with computers and a computer geek would give lectures on how to upload photos to the cloud and how to rent programs like Microsoft Word that you used to own outright.  Just give us your credit card number..... it won't hurt a bit.  Or at least not too much.

And yes, I am typing this on one of my hoary old Toshiba laptops - which you can buy on eBay for less than a smart phone, even.  It is running Windows 7, and it works fine.  You can even play movies on it - but not likely video games.  Speaking of brain-reprogramming machines.... but I won't touch the video game controversy with a ten-foot pole.  I think the video game companies implant subliminal messages in the games that say, "Violent video games do not lead to real world violence, and you should kill anyone who thinks otherwise."   but I digress.

So, just as I was forced to buy a smart phone in the first place - to keep even a tangential connection to the rest of society - I am now forced to buy a newer one - and another one after that, and so on and so forth.  I guess it won't be all that bad or too expensive, but I intensely dislike being forced to throw away working technology, just because some company thinks I need to upgrade - at my expense and for their profit.

It also makes me less enthusiastic about trying these new apps and technology.  We tried Lyft in Alaska and it worked OK (it is not available, apparently, in Canada, or at least Vancouver).   But if they tell me their app won't work unless I buy a new phone.... well count me out, unless I decide to become one of their drivers.

But getting back to Facebook, that is even more insipid.   Turo exhorted me to add my Facebook page to my "profile" so people would feel comfortable renting to me.  And of course, they wanted me to sign up using Facebook or my Google profile.  A competing peer-to-peer rental company (in its infant stages) cuts to the chase and only allows you to sign up using Facebook.   That sort of floored me - a company relying entirely on one social media network as their platform for commerce.   How soon will it be before I can't even buy groceries or gasoline without owning the latest smartphone or a facebook page?  "Bob likes unleaded gasoline and pork rinds!"

Oh, yea, the other odious aspect of this - your every move and purchase logged and posted on your "wall" for others to read, or at the very least, sold off to marketing companies, to use to manipulate your brain.   Suddenly you are getting offers for products and services that seem so convenient and timely!   You might even think it was your idea to buy these things.   Just like you believe that Joe Biden is "Crazy Uncle Joe" who has a taste for underage girls - you read it enough times on social media sites - stated as an offhand fact - and it becomes the new truth.

Something is going awfully wrong here.  I can sort of see it - a monstrous thing - but only around the edges and only out of the corner of my eye.  If I look at it directly, it becomes invisible, or part of the landscape.  But it is there, it is evil, and it is growing.  And smart phones and facebook and online life in general are just some minor manifestations of this.   Sadly, in part, I am to blame for some of it.  I, too, worked for the dark side of data mining.

And it isn't just the Russian Internet Research Agency behind this - although they are very good at it, if not a wee bit too obvious (although most Americans can't spot a shill even at five paces).   It's not an organized thing, really.  It's just an amalgamation of researchers, entrepreneurs, marketers, corporations, governments, and other institutions, great and small, interested in getting inside your head and reading out what really is in there.   And if they are lucky, they hope to be able to put things inside your head as well - and they are pretty far along with this.

This is not a conspiracy theory - there is no grand conspiracy.   But go to some convention of tech companies sometime, and look at all the new products at the display booths and listen to the lectures by industry leaders - everyone is on the same page on this.   Buying and selling eyeballs was the name of the game for cable TV.   With the internet, the game is buying and selling minds.

And what is it they want to put into your mind?  That it is "normal" to be hopelessly in debt.  That it is "normal" to expect to own a fancy house, lease fancy cars, and spend enormous sums of money, over time, on coffee drinks and restaurant meals, as well as "adult toys" (not the sexual kind, the motorized kind) and other distractions (such as smartphones) to distract you from the goal of building real wealth and happiness.   And part of this is selling you the idea that you have to have the latest smart phone, and if you don't, well, you are somehow inadequate.

On our cruise I met a nice guy who was a truck driver.  Now truck drivers don't make a lot of money these days, but he's doing OK.   He had the latest Apple iPhone, and when he saw my battered old Samsung, well, he had to snicker and make comments that (a) anything not Apple is unworthy and (b) worse that not having an Apple, I had an obsolete "brand X" (which I think he derisively referred to as a "Turnip").

But of course, he's still working driving trucks - a job that literally kills you.  Ever seen a truck driver get out of his cab?  Most can barely walk.  Sitting all day and being stressed is bad for your physique - and lets not even talk about blood clots.   It is as bad as sitting in front of a computer all day, come to think of it.

But worst than that, he was older than me and had no real plan for retirement in his future.  He could afford to go on an fancy cruise (and rent the most expensive suite on the boat) and he could afford the latest smart phone.  But he could not afford to retire.  He owns a lot of "stuff" but doesn't own himself.

And we see this in the RV parks - people with fancy expensive RVs who have to pack up on Sunday night and rush back to the city so they can report for duty at their jobs bright and early on Monday morning, because they have to work to pay for the $500,000 motorhome, which they can only use a few weekends a year - and maybe a week or two of vacation.   They look down at us in our tiny, well-paid-for trailer (now 20 years old and about to be replaced) and laugh, as we are obviously poor.  But while they are fighting the traffic on Monday morning, we're sleeping in.  And we've been on the road since May.   Who's really the chump?

I guess this gets back to my last posting about Mr. Money Beard - who was vilified for suggesting that perhaps earning money has some other purpose than just buying a lot of expensive shit so you can live life on a treadmill.  The system, if you will, wants you to work forever, and they sell this idea of "never retiring" and "waiting until 70" to collect social security.  Both ideas would save the government a lot of money - and generate more tax revenue, gin up the GDP, and increase profits for companies, drive down wages, and so forth.

And perhaps this is part of some master plan.   Like Japan, our country is aging, and more and more of us are retiring - in droves - many of us early by plan or circumstance.   How can a country maintain productivity if half the population is sitting on a park bench feeding the pigeons?  We have to sell the idea that people need to keep working, forever.   And maybe the latest offerings from the GOP are along these lines - Mitch "Myrtle the Turtle" McConnell says outright that he wants to cut social security benefits and medicare and medicaid to "balance the budget" after they cut corporate income taxes and taxes for the rich, and approved the largest defense budget in history.

Does anyone out there still not get it?  That "trickle down" economics means being pissed on.  It seems odd to me, but the folks who chant the mantra of "I'll never retire" are the ones most likely to vote Republican - and Republicans seem hell-bent on making sure that mantra comes true.

I know this is a long way to diverge from forced cell phone upgrades, but I think they are one and the same thing.  There are two forces at work here - one which says work is a means of accumulating personal wealth, and another which whispers in your ear, "just give up, live paycheck to paycheck, and buy nice things - you'll be the envy of your neighbors!"  They are like Ying and Yang - opposing forces at work, but no longer in balance today, as it seems most Americans are heavily invested in the latter and not the former.

I'll buy the damn cell phone - maybe next year or the year after.   But I'll put it off as long as possible.  It isn't the actual cost, it is the idea that we are being forced to consume, that irks me.

And worries me.

UPDATE: I went to the GEICO site to get a free glass repair (Alaska, again) which you can get, even if you don't have glass coverage.   I noted that my contact information was out of date and updated it to include text notification.  GEICO suggests I load the "app" on my phone, so I go ahead and do this and guess what?  Yea, the app is "not compatible" with my phone.

By the way, we did buy a pad device (Samsung again) which is newer ($85 at the wholesale club) and it may run some of these apps that the old phones do not.  Again, we piggyback off the phone, which runs as a hotspot.  Perhaps a workaround.

UPDATE 2:  Well, the cheap "pad device" from BJ's wholesale is "not optimized for this app" but loaded the GEICO app and it seems to run OK - even showing "virtual" insurance ID cards.  The Capital One app seems to work the same - warning me it is "not optimized" for this cheap-ass Samsung Galaxy Pad, but working nevertheless.  Maybe I'll try the Turo app next.

But why can't these apps be backward compatible?  What are they changing in the tech that makes them no longer work?   Don't bother answering - I'm not really interested and the correct answer is, of course, "to make you buy a new phone".