User-hostile technology and phone trees (RL153)

John proposes for businesses to hire a "normal squad", a group of people who do the final testing, but are kept totally in the dark about the product and how it is made. They will be there to advocate for the busy and confused person. For 90% of the things John interacts with during the day, he just wants to get it over with and wants them to be as simple as possible. On the contrary, all current products seem to be designed with all kinds of annoyances, like for example a microwave that will scroll "Enjoy your meal" when it is done or an ATM that is trying to start a conversation. The nicest thing that these designers could do is to make those things invisible and not assert themselves. Nobody goes to the ATM machine because they look forward to it, they just want to get done with it. Every multi-function printer that John has bought during the last years - many more than he probably should have needed to buy - is a loss leader pyramide scheme, made to sell overpriced cartridges. Half the printers John bought were necessary because he threw their predecessor out of a window. Just entering the WiFi password with an up-and-down-arrow and not being able to see what you already entered! And what are people going to do anyways when they know your printer password? Print stuff out all day?

The business model of the internet (RL153)

Interacting with his iPhone as much as John does, he notices how much the business model of the Internet right now is based on the same kind of coercion. "Are you really excited to watch this YouTube video? Why don't we take 15 seconds and talk about your car insurance?" His latest hack (besides never upgrading his operating system) is to turn off cellular data on all his games, which prohibits the games to download video advertisements. Of course, Apple made sure that there will be a popup screen every time he opens something that has cellular data disabled, like they punish him by saying "This thing that you know you have done: we want to let you know that we know you've done it!" John also does what he can to not have his photos tagged, particularly when he is in bed at night, sending naked texts to his friends in Europe, and so he turns off his location services, but then when he then clicks on the Maps program, a thing pops up and tells him to go back to settings. Why can't he turn on his location services directly from there and why don't they assume that he wants location services if he opens the Maps program? John doesn't flip through atlases anymore like he used to do his whole life. Merlin explains how John can set his location services more granular in the privacy settings, because if he wouldn't mention it, John Siracusa would start screaming at him.

2017-April: Trouble with the iPad after buying a drum machine app (RL243)

After having not used his iPad for a long time, John bought a $4,99 drum machine app that had been recommended to him down at the music store. He had asked about vintage Roland 808:s and the tech dudes said they didn't know anything about them, because they just do it on the computer now. The machines they had were only there for the grey beards, the old nerds who want to fondle something from their childhood. John was very happy to spend $5 on an app instead of $1500 for a MC Blowfish 808.

As soon as he plugged his iPad in, John was asked to perform an OS upgrade, a thing that he normally is opposed to, but which he regretfully agreed to this one time. After the tablet had churned away for over an hour, half the apps crashed on launch and the ones that do run think for a second every time John touches anything. Furthermore, all his music is gone from the iPad, because it had synced with his new laptop instead of his old 2004 desktop, the computer that holds his only copy of his life's collection of 50.000 songs. Afterwards he only had a free U2 album and "Spearhead" by Michael Franti to listen to, which prevents him from playing music on his Sonos as he used to. Now that he had paid for a drum machine app, his iPad has to think about every beat and you know that "You don't want to think about every beat".

The iPad was also lamenting about syncing to iCloud, but he only has the free 5 GB plan which is already full, so he surely can't sync 50.000 songs to it. He can increase the storage to 50 GB by paying $0,99 a month, but he is not going to put another eel on his bottom (as he calls all forms of subscription services)! It's like the Cosa Nostra, going by his shop, saying "It would be a shame if anything happened to this shop".

To make things even worse, his computer doesn't let him send messages anymore, because he had to change his password in the process. It turns out he had agreed to use Two Factor Authentication, which is like locking his car keys into a second set of car keys.

2017-May: Having to pay for parking with an app (RL246)

The day before memorial day, Merlin and his family went down to Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk or get ripped off by some rides, play games and have a little short fun famliy day. Because it was the day before memorial day the place was mobbed. The area was never built for such a massive audience and it takes you 45 minutes to find a place to park your car. There was a parking meter that didn't take credit cards, nobody had quarters and all the other meters also said "expired", so the way to pay for parking was by using an app called Parkmobile. Merlin had never used it, but he wants it to die in a fire several times over. The process was:

  • Create an account,
  • Configure your account,
  • Put in your license plate number,
  • Enter your payment information by taking a photo of the credit card, which took Merlin 5 tries,
  • Enter the zone you were parked in by scanning the QR code.

During all that, you'd give the app permission to use the microphone, the camera and to send you notifications. Merlin had to pee so badly because they were driving down without stopping for 2 hours. The process took easily 15 minutes while his daughter was looking at the rides from far away, wondering why they were still standing in the parking lot. John is filled with sympathetic rage. If you do not have a smartphone, the solution would be to go to the next bodega store where they would sell you prepaid parking cards.

2017-June: Amazon Prime (RL250)

John recently joined Amazon Prime! He flopped down and did that sigh that his dad used to do when the decision had been made and the game was afoot. His mom had bought him Alexa, because she talks to her all day and now there is an Echo Dot in John's house and he keeps forgetting it is there. He is talking to the wall, he is talking to the plants, he is running things by, and now Alexa is listening! John is sure that he is not using Amazon Prime to it's best advantage because all he is doing is watching "McHale's Navy" for free. He could even watch "Man in the High Castle", the Philip K Dick novel about what would happen if they had lost WWII. John has not yet done the thing that Merlin apparently does, like if he needs a Kleenex, he will just beep-boop and then there will be a guy holding a Kleenex at his door.

Merlin suggests John to go to where he will be able to see a history of what he has asked her. He mostly asked her about the weather and there are a lot of things on that list that John has no recollection of because there are other people in his house. Merlin ensures him that it will take some time until John gets comfortable with the whole stack, but it will eventually happen. There is also a thing called Prime Now that is sending stuff for 2 hour delivery, but they don't have what John is looking to buy, like vintage navy uniforms. The other day John was looking for some Red Wing boots for a friend of his in size 15, which is a size that is not easy to come by. Amazon does not have them for 2 hour delivery either. Paper towels, coffee, butter and socks are never the things that John finds himself needing. What he looks for on the Internet in the middle of the night is some really weird stuff that he desperately feels like he needs delivered in 24 hours. He needs as many Descente pullover windbreakers as he can get. "What is your bottom price? Get them here asap!" He usually orders them en masse and sits there every day on his chair and looks down the road for the truck to arrive. Merlin och John continue to go throught the possibilities of Amazon Prime Now, but don't find anything that John likes to order.

John sharing his calendar (RL253)

At one point John shared his calendar with his mother and other members of his family, because they kept being confused when trying to arrange things with him, but they didn't know he was out of town. The problem is that if you share your calendar, you can't put things on there that you don't want everybody to see, like "Going to the bathhouse with a bunch of guys from the Third army to go over our invasion plan" On the other side, things would show up in his calendar and he didn't know where they were coming from, things like Tuesday June 29th: "Drive car off cliff into ocean". John's calendar has become very confusing.

iPhone Location Services (RL253)

Merlin shows John the function on the iPhone under

Settings -> Privacy ->Location Services -> System Services -> Frequent Locations.

The city of Bremerton appears among John's most visted places, but John has only been there once since June 25th of 2017. It is also showing a number of locations where John has not been.

2017-September: John broke his phone (RW81, RW82)

John broke his phone again yesterday and this time he broke it hard. He had been at the dump several times and had greasy dump floor on the bottom of his boots. He was standing 10 feet off the ground on his dumper and his friend Peter wanted to move the dumper in order to shake it, so John needed to go off of there when all of a sudden his feet slipped out under him and he was completely airborne. If he had hit the ground from that altitude, he would have landed right on his tailbone and would have gone to the hospital, totally messed up. Luckily he landed on the fender of the trailer which was made out of pretty low gauge steel, meaning it was a thick metal. Hitting the fender from a height absorbed a lot of John’s kinetic energy, bent it, made him slide to the ground across that greasy floor, landing back on his feet without really hurting himself. He was fine! Had he just missed that fender or landed on it badly, he would absolutely be in traction right now. As part of the absorbtion process of the kinetic energy, his phone had not just a shattered screen but was bent like a taco in the shape of his tail bone. It deserves a Viking funeral because it broke instead of John breaking!

So much went on yesterday, it felt like a momentous day. It was the last dump run, he got all the garbage out of his yard, broke his phone in half, other decisions got made that will reveal themselves in time and he is not going to replace that phone for the next month and a half until those iPhone X:s come online! Instead, he is going to answer his emails and texts at the end of the day when he looks at his computer. People who need to get to him urgently will be returned to a state that they had his entire life up to 5 years ago. There are only two reasons he would need to be instantly reachable: One is that his daughter was at school and needed something, but he is going to check in there during the day, maybe he will just pop in like his dad used to do, and the other thing would be that his mom needed him, but before he leaves the house he will send out an email to everybody where he is going to be.

John is ready to turn his bed back into a temple where he doesn’t sit and look at his phone, where he has some deluxe sheets and he just comes here to his crystal palace, his temple of silence and he is going to get some blackout curtains, some satin sheets, some darkness and some calm. He is going to return to a place somehow where the hole the phone has left in his brain is going to dissipate and he is going to be a fully human person once again, rather than a cyborg who is becoming infected by this virus. John had been squandering the best part of his time in bed, because like most of us, he had become more and more obsessed with his phone, if not dependent on it, and he is just staring at this thing and it is just creeping into his brain like black mold, ruining not only his bed time, but his everything time. It is just ruining him! There is no question anymore whether or not this is positive or negative, but it is straight up negative!


This happened only about a week before the announcement of the new iPhone, so John decided to wait until he can get the new model. As it turned out, he was not as excited about the new iPhone X as the excitement surrounding it suggested. It is beautiful and does all those new things, but John felt underwhelmed. He uses his phone for less than a dozen tasks. For 5 of those things the phone is useful and amazing, but the other 5 of those things have increasingly become awful. He had spent a lot of time on social media before, but that whole world was just drying up for him. John kept thinking he could step back into it, maybe with a different approach, but the whole idea of being out socializing with thousands of people on an hour-to-hour basis colonized his mind to ill effect. The fact that he was loving it for 5 years does not mean that it is ever going to be lovely again. All the games and everything else on the phone are just mind numbers. The ability to connect to the airline and manage a trip is not as much of a convenience as it seems. It is not any better than just doing it from your laptop. The only difference is that it pings you if your flight gets cancelled while you are standing at the airport, but taken together, all those opportunities for companies to ping you don’t really add up to a necessity. One by one, every little incremental thing tries to prove the necessity of the whole, but knowing the weather in St. Louis is not really a necessity.

Not having his iPhone for a week was an inconvenience for John because he was not able to text people or receive texts. He would instead look at the laptop while he was at home. As he was leaving the house, he would tell the people he cares about - which turned out to be a small group - where he was going and asked them to call the receptionist at that place to leave a message for him, just as we used to do in the old days. Every other thing that somehow made John stare at his phone for 6 hours a day was not that hard to just not have. He made a little list of what that phone does for him and he felt disgusted that it actually doesn’t do that much, at least not enough to absorb his full attention for that amount of time. He came out of the other side of that experiment committed to the idea that he was going to get a flip phone. People will be able to text him and call him and he had even gotten really good at T9, the predictive texting.

At one time, John had been hired by the College Music Journal (CMJ) to go to the Bonnaroo music festival and write a series of reports. John was good enough at T9 that he could write full reviews on his flip phone and send them off to get published. He also wrote an article for Magnet Magazine with two thumbs on his flip phone that later got published in Rolling Stone online. He likes to text and he understands how T9 works. The best modern flip phones have good enough cameras with 6 Megapixels. Dan applauds John’s decision! He is not going to be missing out on things that are important for human beings in the bigger scope.

There is a pernicious mentality saying that it is disingenuous to reappear on social media as a performer after having abandoned it, just to announce the release of a record, but plenty of people are doing that. Jonathan Coulton has not really participated in Twitter for 8 years, but every once in a while he posts that pre-orders are available for his new thing! The bigger the people get, the less actual interactions they seem to do on social media. Superstars are not replying to jim2418. John always loved to interact with people on social media and he still likes being accessible. He likes that people can reach out to him to ask questions or to communicate. It was one of the things he liked about Twitter. He isn’t there to only reply to verified users, how boring! John hopes that people will still email him even if he is not on Twitter or Instagram. Instagram was very fun until it became a place where people were ranting. John got caught in this cycle of following 100 people and the same people were commenting on his pictures every day. He gave 3 hours a day of his life to this interaction that is producing a slow drip of serotonin in him. He can get that other places!

If you had told John two years ago that he is going to have a flip phone, he would have rolled his eyes on you and called you a hipster, but it does start to feel like a mental health issue. For all the flippidy-jobbidy that is on the new iPhone X and for the $1500 it costs, it is still just a portal to social media. Whatever the super-users are doing with 10.000 apps, they live different lives than John’s. People of Dan’s and John’s generation who are in their 30:s, 40:s or early 50:s all grew up without this stuff. Dan had been using a computer since he was 11 years old, he got a TRS-80 Color computer with his Bar Mitzvah money and eventually he even got a cassette drive! He grew up with a computer and had a computer for most of his life, but we only had smart phones since 2007 when the iPhone came out. Dan and John have seen he world and lived in the world as adults before a smartphone existed. John got his first cell phone in 2001 when he was already 32 years old.

When he started his walk across Europe from Amsterdam to Istanbul, John was 30 and he did not bring any electrical devices. No phone, no camera, not even a 35mm disposable camera. He had a journal and a compass, but he did not document his 6 months of walking in any other way than writing in a book. For a lot of people the idea that he doesn’t have a single picture is unimaginable. A few times he would go into a train station and get a strip of 4 pictures of himself in a photo booth. It does feel pretty recent, but it was already 17 years ago and John was a full-grown man at the age of 30. As far as he was concerned, a disposable camera would have been a distraction. He would have been pulling over all the time to take pictures of these vistas and then he would have had to figure out a way to mail them home and get them developed. Why bother?

When John was on tour 10 years later, their drummer got an iPhone and everybody looked at it. He was a guy that had two Blackberries in 2006, one personal and one for work. It was right around the time when the iPod with the video screen came out. They were given those as a gift by the band Keane when they were on tour with them. John never used his and gave it to his mom who filled it up with music and used it as her main rig until the iPod Nano came out. Since then she had maybe had six Nanos. She really believes in them and keeps them in her bra.

Having been adults before all this stuff came out and having spent enough time without it affects how John and Dan feel about living post all this stuff. They found it cool and they love it, but they have a different perspective than people who came into their awareness with those things already present. Dan’s kids are good examples. They grew up in a world where everyone has a cell-phone, an iPad and a computer. Dan got his first cell-phone in his mid-20s when those things were for emergencies only. The cost was so high to have one and let alone actually use it, that if you used it for more than 10 minutes, you would pay through the nose for it. There are a lot of younger people who couldn’t exist without the smartphone, because all of their friends are via text and everything in their world happens within SnapChat or via text. It comes to the point that Apple has now made a watch that allows you to make calls even if - God forbid - you might be away from your iPhone. They understand the pain of being away from your phone for more than an hour while you are at the gym or - even worse - at the beach or - even worse - paddle-boating on a lake. How horrible would it be to paddle-boat on a lake without cellular connectivity to communicate with people and receive calls? You cannot dare to enjoy nature or look at a human being’s face or go into the water without being strapped to this kind of technology. Don’t think about walking down a city street with your eyes forward! You just have to be able to make that call or get that call or see that text or be reminded to stand up!

John shares the suspicion that people who grew up with a technology can’t live without it, but he wonders if that is true! The interesting thing about SnapChat was the idea that up until that point the preservation of emails, texts and photographs was a foregone conclusion. They wanted those things to be preserved and archived! They wanted to keep all this stuff and every single outtake photograph should be stored somewhere. SnapChat was a revelation: A generation growing up with technology that could record, post and store every single moment of their lives was looking for a way to interact with each other through their phones without storing their conversations. That seemed crazy to John when he was trying to find out what the appeal of SnapChat was. Why would you voluntarily create this amazing content and throw it to the wind to never see it again? It changed how John felt about the Millennial generation’s relationship to technology enough that he wonders whether they might seek relief from technology, even if they had never experienced life any other way. It might be more difficult for them because there is such a cultural patrimony of carrying this stuff around all the time and the idea of living without it probably seems even more monastic to them than it does to John. Still, they seem willing to try other things and John can’t believe that their desire to be free from this Wrath of Khan style ear insect shouldn’t appeal to people of all ages, even if they had never been untethered.

At first you have to fight your mind for some time, because you miss fidgeting with your thing and getting that serotonin drip. What are you supposed to do with your hands? It is the same when you quit smoking! You pull up to a stop light and while you are waiting for the light to change you light a cigarette. John’s dad once said that every time the phone rang he lit a cigarette. A lot of times he would look down and see a cigarette already burning in the ash tray that he only lit a moment prior, but when the phone rang again he just reached in and lit a another cigarette. You have to rewire your reflexes and you need to evaluate what that thing is actually doing for you. How much is it helping versus the amount of time that you are spending at it? It is a simple value-to-cost equation. If your time is worth X across the board, whatever this thing is doing for you in all of its many functions, how much time are you devoting to it? If you are devoting hours a day to a thing it should truly be revolutionizing your experience of life! John has years of understanding what to expect from life and he knows that there is no secret that will just blow the roof off and all of a sudden life is in Technicolor. It is not true that all you need is find the right app or the right style of Buddhism. Life is a cold slaugh (?) for everybody. Even staring at the wall for those 6 hours seems more productive in the end. Sitting and playing a game, refreshing Instagram over and over, or fighting with somebody on Twitter about the 1% of a thing you disagree on: None of that is better than staring out the window.

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