The throwaway cellphone

Disposable technology--a waste of time and resources, not to mention a major pain in the posterior

I hate disposable technology. I get attached to my belongings and I expect that the stereo I bought nine years ago and have always taken good care of should work perfectly, that my very expensive computer should be a long-haul purchase and not something I use fleetingly until it is outmoded. Naïve, right?

My first shocking encounter with the disposable nature of “personal technology” was when I was in high school and my beloved CD walkman died. I still have it tucked away for sentimental purposes, a slim grey box with a cord so I could wear it like a big ol’ necklace, brought back from California by my Dad, who on the same trip brought me the latest CDs from New Kids on the Block and Tiffany. Bless him, he tried.

Anyhoo, my general irritation re. our throwaway society became a very specific white-hot anger over the past week as I tried to solve a cellphone mini-crisis. I am on a two-year plan with one of the major cellphone providers and with that package came a slick looking phone with a pretty mirror finish, many ringtones, Bluetooth, a little camera, email compatibility, and a whole bunch of other features I never used. This phone, supposedly worth $600, cost nothing because of the commitment I made to a phone company that I now wish I could divorce, for many reasons. Last week, just over a year from the time I brought my shiny phone home, it had a total meltdown—turning itself on and off in the middle of the night, attempting to connect to the internet without my permission, and most frustratingly, making a unilateral decision that I could only use it while wearing a headset (I don’t own a headset), which meant that while people could call me, I couldn’t hear them. Mayhem.

I called the phone manufacturer and spent a long time on hold, being batted from one help person to another like a plate of cold leftovers. Finally, after about 40 minutes and having been accidentally hung up on twice, a helpline guy talked me through the process for resetting the phone to factory settings which would almost certainly solve the problem. Except it didn’t. Yet another help person explained that the software must be faulty but unfortunately there was no software upgrade available for my model.

I called a cellphone repair place and learned it would cost $50 just for them to cast their eyes over the phone. Incidentally, this was the same place I called when our laptop died a couple months ago after just two years of service and was told it would cost $150 to look at and probably around $800 to repair. Of course we bought a new laptop instead and a very expensive and much-loved piece of plastic and silicon was sent to the recyclers.

I called my phone service provider to see if they would pay for the phone to be fixed. “Probably,” said the man at the shop where I signed up for my two-year calling plan. “Let me check.” He rang back five minutes later to tell me the usual two-year warranty did not apply in this case. “Sorry.”

So my pretty phone was a worthless piece of junk and I still couldn’t collect my messages. A sister-in-law suggested Trademe, where one of our nieces picked up a nice phone for $30. Great. I signed up and started trawling, except the decent phones were all way fancier and more complicated than I needed or wanted. Ferrari-branded phone, anyone? My two top picks went for more than I was willing to spend. A week had gone by, and still no phone.

Life is too short to invest that kind of time in online auctions, or at least not for a phone when you’re not a phone person. (In nine years of reluctant cellphone use I have owned just three other models—the first was a lovely pale yellow thing I named Buttercup. When it committed hara kiri after three years of service I lost interest in the species.) I checked with my phone service provider and the best they could do was $129 for an ugly little brick of a thing that I knew was available at an electronics chain for $99. No camera, no email compatibility, no cutesy avatars or Bluetooth. So that’s what I bought—for $99, not $129. It will probably last 10 years.