Permanent Crisis Is The New Normal — Prosper Anyway #5 — What Does Your Phone Really Cost You?

Permanent Crisis Is The New Normal — Prosper Anyway #4 — What Others Think Of You Is None Of Your Business

Even if it’s only $50, what is the real cost?

I got my first mobile phone from the Cellular One outlet in a Circuit City store in late 1992. It was a Motorola but not like the super big ones in American Psycho. (408) XXX-4167. I still remember the number because it’s still my number 30 years later. I have a dual SIM phone, so I also have a Thai number for various service needs here.

Phones

It was cool. One of my early memories is of driving back from Reno where my grandmother held a party on a Sunday afternoon. During the drive back to San Jose I was listening to an afternoon talk show on KGO 810 out of San Francisco. I called in. I can’t recall the host’s name, but when I was on the air he made a specific point that I was calling from a cellphone—which I suppose was intended to add weight to my expressed opinion.

Cellphones were fantastic. How far we’d come.

And now here we are.

…It was before my time but back in the day, telephone communication didn’t have automated switching. It was literally manual and human.

All operators were delightful and hot, just waiting to be asked on a date!

Back in the day, your phone number was the name of the switchboard and the number of your particular plug. So, like Fairview 1234. When you wanted to make a call, you picked up the phone and told the operator “Sterling 4321, please.” It’s an interesting history because electromechanical switching was invented in the late 1800s. But human operators persisted in many places into the 1950s. I guess it was good enough, and they had lots of sunk investment in it. Plus, maybe they liked the pretty operators around. I know I would.

I actually know a bit about this technically because as electrical officer on USS Reeves in 1986, I got to oversee the replacement of our ancient electromechanical telephone system with a digital one. The old one was a bit fun, though. Each switching unit was a barrel of discs, 4″ diameter, 8″ high, and each disc would physically rotate around independently to make the necessary precise connection from one telephone to another, all over the ship.

Over the years they had begun to cannibalize it. Parts were no longer available, so the IC (interior communication) mates would take the worst switching barrels offline and use the parts to repair the others. Well, that goes only one way and that was to laughable unreliability. It’s ridiculous to have party lines on a warship.

“Combat center?”

“No, it’s the ship’s mini mart.”

So after years of praying, we finally got the DIMENSION 3000!!! No shit, that’s what it was named. One day in Yokosuka a Japanese contractor came to deliver and install it over a few day’s time. We had to cut a 4×8 hole in the top deck of 3/4″ steel to hoist up the old and lower in the new.

I can visualize it as though it was yesterday. Two slight of stature Japanese dudes in full Asian squat meticulously sorting and labelling every single of the hundreds of telephone nodes on the whole ship. As is the typical experience with competent Japanese labor, it worked flawlessly. We now had modern digital switching and also, reliable ship to shore and shore to ship communications when in port. Just like in a hotel, you preface with a number to go off ship and you’re smilin’ and dialin’.

…My most memorable incoming was one night, just after arriving back in port from somewhere.

“LT Nikoley, phone call in the wardroom.”

“Hello, it’s Nikoley.”

“Hi Rick. It’s Letty. Can you come see me?”

There’s a saying in the Navy in those parts that if you want the most up-to-date ship’s scheduling information, ask the nearest Filipina.

…Telephones were such good tools that they enjoyed the embrace of everyone. How crappy would movies be if there were no telephone booths? By contrast, the endless stream of phoneshit in movies now is often endlessly annoying. Back in the day, not being able to reach someone from a phone booth or courtesy phone at the bar didn’t spell disaster for the plot. It was a bump in the road. Now, can’t get through on the cellphone or text? It could very well spell the death of the planet and human civilization.

Oh, planet saved by a last-second cellphone connection! You’re welcome, sponsors.

I never talk long unless I’m living abroad, it’s late at night my time, and I choose to share my inebriation with any loved ones who’ll answer.

Up until the mid 80s, answering machines on telephones weren’t even common. Some commercial places used them, with tape and reel, but until they became digital, not much of a consumer market.

Think about it. Back in the 50s, 60s, 70s, and 80s, were you ever concerned over who might be wanting to contact you? And before answering machines, upon returning home you had no idea whether the phone had rung zero or a hundred times. A loved one might be dead. That news will make its way to you and time isn’t of the essence. I have never understood the propensity to wake anyone in the middle of the night to notify them of a death. That’s news that keeps. They’ll still be dead in the morning.

Tools

It was always really good-tool stuff, pretty much until the iPhone. There were already rudimentary smartphones and I had a couple of them because they were mainly for companies. Even though kids had gotten their hands on phones, they were texting via phone keypad. No matter how good they got at it, it was self-limiting.

I’m not saying the smartphones aren’t fantastic tools. People picking rice in the paddies of southeast Asia have a tool in their pocket that can transfer money to someone picking on the next row over—or across the country—in an instant, for free.

They can live stream in HD video to the world. Everyone is a broadcaster. Everyone is a creator of digital content. Everyone has a computer in their pocket millions of times more powerful than the computers on Apollo 11 and the Lunar Lander.

It far surpasses even the wildest visions from the space age—well, except for flying cars.

But if you pay closer attention, the computer revolution was envisioned to be just another in a long list of appliances that would ease various mundane burdens so that you could spend more time doing what you love. And what was most loved? More quality time with friends and family…or even more quality time alone.

Try to imagine a scenario where back in those days, showing families enjoying the benefits of this new technology, it had come with a set of warnings.

  • May cause you to become socially withdrawn in real life, in favor of a virtual one
  • May create opportunities for spouses to look elsewhere and find
  • May inadvertently receive a text and/or pic from your daughter, intended for a boyfriend
  • May write stupid shit to hundreds or thousands—instead of just the few sitting with you at the campfire or around the water cooler
  • May get you involved in causes internationally to let boys into girls’ bathrooms, let children change their gender before they’re halfway to puberty, find racism in everything, find oppression in everything, become an associate broadcaster for whatever the broadcasters are broadcasting
  • May post video clips of your kindergarten children receiving school lessons from transvestites with joyful, starry-eyed emoji
  • May have someone record everything you’ve sent them over years and publish it widely
  • May have to delete things you already sent out because too fucking stupid
  • May have things posted going back years used against you in court
  • May induce unbridled exuberance
  • May induce unbridled hate
  • May induce delusions
  • May pull your family apart, cause loss of friends, and cause loss of job

You could make that a lot longer and I’m not discounting the potential for social growth as part of the overall outcomes. For all I know, something like this is perfectly normal, should be expected, and you watch and study how it plays out over a few generations and new social norms evolve.

What happened when the first axes were forged in Viking villages, everyone started on the ale, and disputes broke out leading to challenges over honor? Did heads get split open where before there would have been typical brawls?

It’s the rule of tools. Hammers can be used to build a house or bash in skulls.

Normalizing Tool Use In Society

All very useful tools developed over eons have been misused from their intended purpose.

Scythes have cut down billions of bushels of wheat, feeding billions. How many have been used to kill or maim another and what’s the death count? And, relevant to starvations averted? Nothing is as simple as the fringes of leftist-commie and rightist-religious ideology would have you think.

There are so many examples. Sledgehammers, axes, picks, saws, knives…anything truly useful to forge steel, wood, rock, land, earth, and water towards our own making for our own needs can be used to maim or kill ourselves, or someone else.

The more ancient ways easily saw this as simply doing the same thing…killing someone else. What did it matter if hands, a big rock, or a man-made tool of any sort was used? It didn’t.

It’s only the politicization and hyper-legalization of everything that did. And smartphones—tools in themselves—are used to make meaningless distinctions.

Modern Smartphone Tools

Since my first trip to Asia in 1982 to Korea and Japan, I was enamored of its essential primitivity or conservative traditionalism, combined with its development nature. Japan was modern by then and Korea was within years of that. I ended up visiting lots of places in the southeast. Philippines was just too primitive, likely a function of its vulnerability to getting smashed too often by really bad shit tropical storms. Largely the same with much of Indonesia.

Overall, Thailand was the shit and I never forgot it, really on the move. Japan was the #1 investor in those days, now it’s China. Over the 30-some years since I’d been coming here often, it has done well for itself in terms of getting out of poverty. According the the World Bank, 90% of Thais were below the poverty line in 1984. When I arrived in 2020, only 10%. And it’s still a simple country with its simple values. And it’s conservative and modest.

I don’t know how long it will last because everybody has a smartphone now…even many children. You might wonder how relatively poorer people can do it. $15/m unlimited talk, text, and data. And that’s about the most expensive. For bare bones, you can get by on a few baht per day, “top up” as you go.

Compare that to your Verizon plan. And their service is uniformly better. Most 3rd world countries have better coverage than USA. They leap-frogged stringing up wires and huge switching centers to have a phone in every home, to wireless. Most homes never had a telephone, now there’s 5 wireless phones in the house. When it rings, you know who it’s for.

That’s here nor there, just the reality of when the tech came along, and at what cost. For all I know, Americans with their $150 cell phone bills are still subsidizing granny with her landline, just as they’ve sacrificed school children for two years on her behalf. What a granny!

When I landed in Thailand in early 2020 I remarked that thankfully, nothing much looks to have really changed in the intervening 30 years except all the smartphones.

I hadn’t appreciated the half of it, and here’s where we come full circle and get to why this is a Prosper Anyway post.

Phones? Prosper Anyway

The reason I’ve taken 2,000 words to begin getting to the essence is because I wanted to frame these as tools and nothing more. Used for good or bad, and even bad against yourself.

…You know, even a bottle of whiskey is a tool. It can disinfect a wound (according to the movies) or make you dependent upon it. In the story of Eve and the serpent in the Garden of Eden…that’s a story of engendering dependency more than it’s about deception.

…A few days back I went to one of my fav pubs for breakfast. It’s a sports pub, so it’s quite fun to sit there at the bar in my usual spot and glance at what happens to be on a dozen screens. Everything here is Euro-centric so about the only American sports you’ll see is basketball often enough. Golf is international…but the biggest event every year is the Super Bowl. The sports pubs are packed in at 5am each Monday morning of each year with Europeans. That in itself is a kick to behold.

Their Americanos are very nice. Decent breakfasts of various sorts. This particular morning I was 2 seats down from an unusual sight. A young black man, and of the darker variety. He was on a video chat, quite well spoken. At some point, he looked over and asked what it was I was having so he could order the same. I told him and whoever it was on the other end of the video interjected. He was in LA, but lives in Bay Area. Yada yada, and yea, he has a 408 area code too. That’s the value exchange.

He gets off the video chat and we start talking. Accomplished young man. Just completed his degree in engineering science in the US, but has been a Muay Thai (Thai boxing) fighter for some years and has competed internationally. Phuket is a hotbed for this and many have made millions by starting fighting gyms.

Just as we’re getting into a good conversation over all of it—and at 61, I genuinely wanted to learn more from this 20-something—his phone rings again “I have to take this” and he’s off again talking with someone anywhere in the world he can literally talk to any damn time and it would not make a fuck of a difference.

How fucking tragic for the both of us.

He’ll never see me again. He doesn’t live here and he was one day away from departure.

I finished by breakfast and left a bit sad whilst he was chatting with anyone. I really wanted to talk with him more.

Now I’ll juxtapose that. Duh, of course.

In the late afternoon I went over to a girl bar I frequent. I’ve known the owner for over a year now, but many of her customers have known Nida for over a decade. She began as a cook in a British pub just down the road years ago, had the farang boyfriend for a few years, lived in Norway for a year, etc, etc. Now she owns a bar and has houses, rental properties, and 2 cars. She turned out to have a good head for numbers and customer relations.

Her English understanding is so good she not only understands Brit, American, and Aussie humor, she can make jokes herself on the fly. …One day I was telling her about a fellow customer, Denny from Chicago, who sometimes annoys the fuck out of me.

“You ever look mirror?”

It’s an afternoon old-guy expat bar. Canadians, Americans, UK, Aussies, Kiwis, primarily. Some Swiss and German frequenters too, but those who speak English well and are comfortable in our midsts. In the afternoon, the bar will be full and while everyone has their smartphones, the only thing they’re used for is to put another song in the queue for the smart TV on YouTube Premium.

And then we sit and banter over the selections which, because of our ages in the 50s and 60s, are from the 70s and 80s, mostly, and mostly in video because that’s how it is, now. Now and then, someone will throw us for a loop, like when I put up the theme and video for the 70s TV series, The Love Boat, asking, who wrote and composed that?

Nobody had a clue. Barry White, and we’re down more rabbit holes.

That’s smartphone as a good tool. Never is anyone face down in their phone as if to say: y;all are boring me.

…Yesterday I was on the beach at Big Monkey, a place I go to for Goy’s cooking…plus she’s 30-something hot. Lab na, seafood. She cooks calamari and octopus al dente like the Italians. Never overcooked to rubber.

During the meal, an elderly couple sat down next table over. Looked Brit but don’t know for sure. Their heads went immediately face down in their phones. They looked up only to order drinks…faces back down. Drinks come, so faces up, then faces back down. Still down when I left. Neither took one single opportunity to talk with one-another or anyone else.

Now, who knows in their personal and private situation. Maybe they had a tif and this was their way of being distant but close enough for the bleed valve to equalize, but I suspect not.

The No Shit Practical

What can you do? Well, to wax libertarian, you’re not going back to the gold standard for sound money. Fiat is here to stay. Neither will you rid the world of smartphones and nefarious apps. It’s like saying people use the tool of guns to kill too many people so let’s just get rid of guns.

It’s hilarious how susceptible humans are to herding cats already out of the bag.

Prosper anyway.

The smartphone is too fabulous of a tool to put back in the bag anyway and I’ve come to see it as a generational rocky road for society and it’s global, so this is going to take some time.

And think of it this way. From the top down it’s nearly all nefarious in various ways from tracking you, to gathering data on you, to marketing to you, to coordinating with governments against you, to prosecuting you.

From the bottom up, you can turn it on when you want, turn it off when you want. You can decide when and if your children have one and when they do, you control how they can use it. Since it’s an important tool they’re enamored of, you’re probably an idiot if you’re not paying attention. Or, go ahead and end up with a grandchild. What? Or something.

Let Yourself Be Guided By Your Sense Of Humanity

That’s what I’d want to say in the general. When you say sense of humanity, it tends to exclude lots of lies.

What is your genuine, honest, heartfelt sense of humanity?

  • How do you really feel when you meet someone and the first thing you do is set your phone on the table, at the ready? And them too?
  • Uh, OK what? What does that mean? Which of you interacting face to face is less important than anyone from anywhere making the phone wriggle and thrive?
  • What happens when you look?
  • Don’t you wanna take that?

There’s an element of telephone I noted as a child and I hate it to this day.

A call goes to the head of the line.

Have you ever stood in line for service, or even just walked up to the counter…

“Ring, ring. Oh, excuse me.”

Sucker you. Rather than going in for face to face, you just ought to have called and butted into the front of the line.

It all is what it is but you should understand it, not be untowardly perturbed, live with it, and find little ways to Prosper Anyway.

…For many years I have used the Do Not Disturb function on my phone and tablet so that from 10pm to 7am they do not make a peep. The problem with that is that by not truly getting in and managing stuff, I get inundated with any and every fucking thing from 7-10.

You’d like to think how dumb these various advertisers are—they are trying to get you to buy something—but they’re just doing numbers. When you have millions, just a small percentage is big bucks. And it’s a revolving door so pissing off customers is of no real concern.

…By this time you have well caught my drift and that’s simple.

It’s a tool, use it properly.

So try this. Try it for a day, a week, a month, or whatever.

Disable all notifications. All of them. Twenty-Four Seven.

Can you do it, and begin to see the reemergence of a tool?


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9 Comments

  1. Steve Smith on March 17, 2022 at 19:12

    I use my phone as a phone and occasionally as a torch. That’s it. I have to remind myself to bring it with me when I pay the monthly bill (212 baht–less than USD$9). I use my laptops for the internet. I realised early that investing in phone technology was a serious investment in time and learning which I didn’t want to do. I can live with that. But since my phone stays on my desk 98% of the time, I can probably get away with murder if I have to. :)

    • Richard Nikoley on March 17, 2022 at 19:46

      I like how you don’t use phone tech mate, but i must say that the map apps are the bomb, especially anywhere.

  2. Ron Padot Jr on March 17, 2022 at 22:45

    I’m a real estate agent. I could literally spend the entire day answering calls, and text and/or email notifications, without actually getting much relevant stuff done. Do Not Disturb, or Silence Notifications is used frequently. When I talk to some, sometimes I get the..”I tried calling, and even texted multiple times.” Yes, I know. Happy to be talking to you now…

    Sideways is up there in my Favorite Movies category. That movie feels like a true glimpse into those peoples’ lives. Feels real. Funny as all get out, touching, and ultimately feel-good. Nice combo for me.

  3. Jeanie Campbell on March 17, 2022 at 23:01

    Really love this post. Can’t wait to share it with Bill.

  4. Eric Mowery on March 17, 2022 at 23:04

    Spot on!
    I work in tech. Yes, they are tools. Tools – that if you listen to the heads of major tech companies – they restrict usage of with their own kids severely. Almost like how many of us got 1 hour of tv on a school night. oh, and we had to sit 6 feet away from the screen as it was bad for your eyes. But no, they aren’t being used as tools, they are a leash around most people’s neck, telling them what to respond to, when to do it, what to worry about, etc.
    We all know email spam has been over-used for marketing. When I was at my last company, (who used to have the daily deal) about 4 years ago – they studied this and the result was that people are ignoring their emails in general, not clicking/opening much anymore, BUT just having your email in their new emails list in their inbox is enough of a mental prompt that they can see the benefit/”engagement” lift of sending all those stupid emails – making it worth it. I hate it. I now take the time to unsubscribe from the endless spam. Just because I bought your deodorant doesn’t mean I want to get an email from you three times a week. It “user engagement” over-load.
    And emails are old -school. Now its all about notifications to drive “engagement”. Its relentless, and not just about marketing retail items, its marketing world-views by the “news media” sending you the alerts throughout the day to keep you “engaged” with them, ramped up and freaked out – this is happening/being done to the lefties and the righties.

    Like you said it can all be stopped with a tap of a setting button and turning of notifications.

    I’ve also made the default ring tone and text tone on my phone to be a mild sound, like a hooting owl. If you are one of my top 5 people – I’ve set a louder sound/ring. All others are like a distant easily ignored sound.
    Oh, and I turned off vibrate years ago. I was hiking somewhere and my leg spasmed, and my brain thought it was the phone vibrating. It happened again on a ferry with the engine vibration, and I thought this seems like a bad idea that my brain is now trained to tell me random vibrations in life are a phone call. Best thing I did. If its important – they will leave a message.
    Like you said above – putting your phone on the table effects the quality of the connection between those at the table – its well re-searched. A buzz on my leg, or ding, it pulls me out of what I am immersed in at the moment, even if for a few seconds, destroying the experience of life that was going on around me. More research is coming out about mental cost of distraction when engaged in a task. It takes longer to get re-engaged than previous thought.
    And yes, I too remember calling someone, and if they didn’t answer, I’d try later (we had a party line for a few years). Life happened, everything worked out fine, without minute-by-minute texts messages etc.

  5. Greg Bur on March 18, 2022 at 00:29

    This post reminds me of something I saw on LinkedIn the other day: “Men are happiest when we are building shit. Physique, businesses, finances, and relationships. That’s what really matters.” How do we build? With tools, not Skinner Boxes.

  6. Alan Andersen on March 18, 2022 at 04:01

    Is it just me, or has your email also turned into a wasteland of junk in the past 7 years or so? For many years after email started, of course there was always spam, which is now mostly taken care of by good spam filters. But what I’ve noticed is that every single fucking company that I’ve ever bought something from now seems to act as if I am their new friend. They technically avoid the spam designation because we have a “commercial relationship”. So I get constant survey requests, thank you’s, product updates, emails telling me I’m eligible for their “rewards” programs, etc. I diligently unsubscribe, but they still send what they call “service related” emails. My college used to send me constant alumni emails. I unsubscribed and unsubscribed until finally they stopped. Then about a year later, I get an email saying “Hey, we noticed you unsubscribed from everything, but did you really intend to do that, because we have so many wonderful updates we are sure you would want to hear about.”

    And now that I finally was forced to sign up for Medicare, I have another new friend: Medicare. It’s like they own me now. Constant emails reminding me to take my pills and get my shots, sending me summaries of my prescription drug deductibles usage.

    And even worse, now all these companies have decided to text me. I guess they figured out they weren’t getting enough attention from their emails. Medical offices are the worst. They now text me constant reminders of my next appointment.

    And on top of emails and texts, the crowning insult is that smart devices are now wasting my time with shit. I have a smart scale to weigh myself on that is connected to wifi. Just the other day, I stood on the scale on my birthday and before it gave me my weight, the fucking thing wished me a happy birthday. I almost threw it out the window. What’s with the fucking happy birthday wishes? Are we all 8 year olds? I just turned 70 and my birthday is anything but happy. Yet not only my scale, but my DENTIST office texted me a Happy Birthday.

    And actual friends don’t email anymore. Just 10 years ago, friends would email each other all the time. My girlfriend and I would even engage in fights and arguments via lengthy emails back and forth. Now it seems that real people just text, which is better than email cuz they are shorter. But still, for actual friends though, I’d rather just talk in person or meet up. I never email friends anymore.

    Finally, I too use the Do Not Disturb feature, which is great except every morning when I awake, usually in a bad mood and/or hungover, it’s a nightmare of accumulated texts and emails, often with people seeming a bit pissed because I didn’t text them back for hours. Seems like I have to spend the first half hour of every day just deleting the 20 corporate emails that came in overnight.

    I’m in the process of soul searching. Trying to figure out how to retain the conveniences while checking out of this never-ending flow of happy corporate well-wishing, reminders, and reward program offers. I’ve thought of getting a burner phone, but there are still the laptop emails I have to sort through on the off chance there is some email that is actually important.

    In the olden days, before emails and texts, I only had to deal with junk paper mail. I would simply set a trash can underneath my mail box and would just drop all the junk mail right from the mailbox into the trash. Now I have to click and delete, click and delete.

  7. Ralna Cunningham on March 23, 2022 at 20:39

    So now I have the Love Boat theme in my head. Thanks for that.

    It really has become too much. We spent $105 on excess data charges last month. I finally switched plans. One young adult family member did 4788 texts last month which cost no extra money, but emotion time and brainpower. Not sure it is self limiting. Any recurring charge gets less scrutiny over time and plastic purchase habit makes easy to impulse purchase and overspend. I’m scrutinizing everything currently. The truth is all this tech and immediate feedback is a hard habit to break.

    • Richard Nikoley on March 24, 2022 at 06:53

      What I meant by self limiting is back in the day when phones had only physical keypads and not soft keyboards, so you had to compose texts using the 3 letters corresponding to the 10 digits.

      If you remember doing that, it can wear out your head pretty quick.

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