Three days ago, I downloaded a software update to my phone. Yes, I know. Very routine. Not interesting at all. Not exciting. You know that, and so do I. But. If you haven’t left already, keep reading. Please nicely.
I’d spent a week telling the thing that I was happy without the upgrade. Possibly more than a week, but I don’t keep track. Somebody once told me to get a life, and the advice stung. I took it. My phone is a phone. I’m alive and I’m living … the dream, the daydream, the morning walk, the sudden idea, the routine task, the breakfast, the lower back pain, the shifts in Truro, the friends, the Writing Group, the articles, the books, the sound of the wind in that tree, the birds, that baby and her mother in the lift yesterday, the street music in Church Street earlier, the sunrise this morning, the beaches here, the freedom to write this blog and the rest of the life I went out and got, and I don’t have time for my phone’s electronically over-caffeinated artificial emotions.
But - you know phones and their combination of dogged insensitivity and not-quite-moral pressure? I’d be vulnerable in so many ways if I didn’t upgrade. My life would be so much better if I upgraded. I owed it to myself to do the sensible thing and upgrade. True happiness awaited me if only I would upgrade. Exciting new features, hand-picked Just For Me.
You understand that the [expletive deleted] phone wouldn’t shut up about the upgrade.
In fact, you know this. You own technology. You’ve been there. The phone did its thing during the night, and in the morning it was all excited: did I want to know about all the exciting new features that the upgrade had given me? No. Cancel, Cancel, Cancel, and I could get on with whatever it was I wanted to do with my phone that morning. Make a call, probably. It’s a phone. The word “lifestyle” doesn’t belong in the same sentence as that oddly heavy little rectangle. Nobody says “Get a lifestyle,” although it’s easy enough to be sold one.
Next morning, the same. Did I want to know? No. Press Cancel three times, to stop being told how exciting it all was, how thrilled I was, and I could finally make a call.
You understand - because you’ve been there - that by now I was fully committed to a contest with my phone. I was annoyed with it, and actively trying not to find out anything about these [expletive deleted] new features. I was excited, yes, but not in the way that the phone thought I was excited. Phones are stupid. Huh! You know the feeling?
Actually, I’m not sharing the story of my upgrade because it bothers me. No, really. I’m just mystified. When did we start having to deal with our technology’s insecurity?
Okay, I’m changing the subject now.
Thirty years ago this week, I bought myself a goldfish. It was a goldfish. Gold. A fish. In a rectangular tank. Glass. I bought various things for it to swim around and through, and read up about how its memory worked. I learned about water filters, feeding schedules, and how to spot the various ailments that might afflict my goldfish. Spellcheck doesn’t like afflict. That might cause unhappiness for my goldfish. I called it - him, her, no idea - Henry.
Two days later, I came down to find that there had been a break-in during the night. You know that creeping gradual realisation that something isn’t right? The tiny piece of paper that I wedge into the door frame had fallen to the floor. When I looked, I saw that there were scratches around the lock. But nothing was missing.
The only obvious clue I could find was a splash of water on the floor in the library. But the Sacred Bloodshot Dragon’s Eye Emerald (cursed, of course; found it in that tomb I visited, under the mummified corpse) was still in its place in the display cabinet, and in the absence of a slumped body with a knife in its back, or, say, a set of strange ritualistic symbols carved into the floor, I felt reasonably sure that - what? Somebody had come in and pretty quickly gone out again. Weird, but over the course of the day, I relaxed. A homeless person, perhaps, sleeping for an hour then spilling a glass of water before leaving? Maybe I should leave out a sandwich.
One thing: Henry seemed hungry that morning, and I made a note in my diary that he was clearly eating well - he looked as though he’d put on weight.
Two nights later, the same thing happened again. And this time - Henry was a full inch longer than he had been the night before. Very strange. I put him on light rations and installed a CCTV system, which meant in those days hiring a bunch of middle-aged men in shirtsleeves and cigar smoke to play cards in my spare bedroom while watching a bank of TV screens showing black-and-white views of the interior of my house.
Or not watching.
The next morning, I came down to find Henry gone, and in his place, a foot-long carp in a larger rectangular tank. As you might expect, I called the pet store. “Did you like the upgrade? Carp are considered to be sacred in…” I slammed down the phone, loaded the carp, in its tank, into my car and drove to the pet store. But my first Henry was gone. And the carp - they insisted on calling him (her?) Henry - was out of warranty.
It was fully a week later when I came down to find Henry The Carp - and his tank - gone. I phoned the pet store. “Did you like the upgrade? Very rare. White sturgeon have been around since…” I went out and looked at the tank that they’d dug into my back garden.
My views on upgrades haven’t changed since the day, many more than thirty years ago, when I presented a bunch of flowers to a close friend, and as I did so, the man from the flower shop reached past me and presented her with a bigger bunch of flowers. I did hesitate (back with the fish story again) when the low-loader arrived with the free submersible shark cage to accompany the next free upgrade - I mean, how many whale sharks do you need in a suburban garden? - but I suppose you would have to say that I got value for money.
My phone stays the same. I don’t have to worry that I’m going to wake up and find a bigger, brighter, more state-of-the-art and expensive device on the bedside table. No. Just the same old cracked-screen thing buzzing with a lot of big talk about new features. It’s the not shutting up that gets to me. That week of telling me how happy I’d be with the upgrade. The mismatch between the near-intimate insistence that the yapping little brick is going to make me happy, and its complete failure to listen to what I actually want. The thing’s pathetic attempts to be helpful. To get my attention.
Yes, I know there’s a constant battle going on with the forces of darkness, and if my phone doesn’t rinse itself through with an upgrade every now and then, it’s going to end up possessed by some bizarre malware that’s going to send $10,000 of my money to that bloke in Nigeria with the fortune to export, but can’t it just do that without having to tell me about it?
Just a thought, but have we passed peak usefulness with today’s smartphones? Do they know it? Could it be that simple? I wonder how it artificially feels, to live with the artificial knowledge that obsolescence is just around the corner? That as soon as somebody comes up with the next innovation that is an innovation and not just another app, you’ll be going into the drawer where the Psion Organiser lives, and the Palm Pilot, and the Commodore 64, never to come out again into the light?
Excuse me - oh, hello, [Social Media Utility That’s Been In The News A Lot Recently]. What’s that? You’ve rearranged your features to make yourself even more useful to me? That’s nice, dear, but I’m busy right now - no, I’m sure it’s all very exciting, but - look, I'm busy, could you - okay, you asked for it: Cancel, Cancel, Cancel.
Anyway. Whatever. “William, here’s your 0% interest balance transfer offer (20 months with a 0% fee).” Okay. Should I be wondering how that twenty-first month would feel? “Hello William,” says the line under the bit I’ve just quoted. I’ve never met these people, and if any of the hype about big data and algorithms is true, they must know that I’m Of A Certain Age. But no matter. We haven’t been introduced, but we’re on first-name terms already.
“Hello William, If our 20 month 0% balance transfer wasn’t enough, it also comes with a 0% fee. You can look forward to:” and then it goes into bullet points. Roughly translated, I think it means that if I do whatever it is they want me to do - no doubt they’ll get to it eventually - I can look forward to an experience remarkably similar to the experience of not having a [That Brand Of Credit Card] - for twenty months.
Ah, here it is. The letter is from Brunhild. Name changed to protect the corporate. Brunhild is “Director Of New Customer Accounts”, and it says here, “Security - it’s our middle name.” Not sure about that “our” - oh, wait. “Our dedicated fraud protection team are at your service 24/7.” Not sure about that “are” either - a team is a singular thing, surely? But I can imagine my first-name chum Brunhild Security chuckling affectionately - “That William, he’s such a stickler for grammar, isn’t he?” - and the team chuckling along with her.
I wonder if “at your service 24/7” means they’d do my washing up, or do I have to wait for a fraud to be committed? Boring for them, if they’re on round-the-clock shifts and nobody tries to attack my piggy bank. Perhaps they also get “5% back on the hottest tickets” and “a delicious 5% on food and drink at O2 Academy venues right across the country (exclusions apply**)” That double asterisk, by the way, leads to a footnote that reads “T&Cs apply,” and then there’s a link to a web page where you can find out more.
Well, this all sounds very exciting, Brunhild S. - you could have gone with Security as your first name, you realise? B. Security and then that surname would have been just right, surely, for this job? Although I realise that in our relationship, we've gone past surnames. How about we get together and talk about it, maybe progress things a little further - oh, wait a minute. There’s another footnote on this page. “You may be offered a different credit limit, representative APR, purchase rate or promotional Balance Transfer period to any shown here as it depends on your individual circumstances. Subject to status.” And all that connects up via its asterisk to this sentence. “You may be given a different offer based on your individual circumstances.”
Different from what? Oh, I see. There’s an illustration here. If I transfer … that much … from another credit card - but I haven’t got another credit card - and the interest rate is this, I could end up saving that. If the interest rate is - cor! - I could end up saving that. “Saving” in the sense of not paying to a credit-card company. I see. And - no, wait, I’ve got this, if my status isn’t what Brunhild thinks it is - if I’m not the man she thinks I am - this is actually the illustration of the offer that I won’t get. Oh, Brunhild, I’ve got a bad feeling about this.
Brunhild, did you write this whole A4 page of small print? And the "accompanying booklet"? It’s very detailed. Well written, though. Accessible, if small. You’ve obviously made an effort - credit where credit’s due, ha ha, geddit? Sorry. But - look, Brunhild, I have a bigger problem. The thing is - don’t laugh, but this is like one of those dating apps where the profile just doesn’t match - never mind. Thing is, Brunhild, I don’t know what your algorithms told you, or my big data's saying about me, but I haven’t got a balance to transfer. Not even a small one. Does that mean we’re never going to meet up and save ourselves a delicious 5%?
Because I’m funny, everybody says so, and I’m sure I could give you a really entertaining - hello? Brunhild, are you there? Hello? Hello?