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{ in·deed·a·bly }

adverb: to competently express interest, surprise, disbelief, or contempt

Dependence

dependence: the situation in which you need something or someone all the time, especially in order to continue existing or operating

The phone fired a low battery warning.

The second in as many minutes.

Then the screen faded to black. Dramatic. Final. More than a little inconvenient.

I glared at it. Swore at it. Stabbed at it with my finger. Unsuccessfully attempted to raise it from the dead using sheer force of will.

As phones go, the handset could be considered old. Not old like the universe, the dinosaurs, or how my kids perceive me to be. But old nonetheless. Its battery no longer held a charge for long. Back when I bought it, the manufacturer boasted of a battery life of “up to” 15 hours of usage. That had been an exaggeration then, today it was an outright lie. No longer capable of making it through a business day without an afternoon siesta to recharge.

I sighed. The phone manufacturer’s warranty had expired.

So too had the free extended warranty offered by the store I had purchased it from.

I reluctantly conceded the tipping point had been reached: frustration exceeding utility. It was time to replace the handset.

Now some people all get excited at the prospect of buying a new toy. The geeks and the fanbois. Investing countless hours researching and evaluating the best model. The best deal. The best price.

I’m not one of those people. A long time ago, I used to care about such things. Indeed, I once did the sums and worked it that it was cheaper to fly to New York, buy a laptop, and fly back than it was to buy the equivalent model in London. I didn’t get much sleep, but enjoyed a fantastic weekend.

Today I simply looked up what the modern equivalent of the phone I already had was, then did a quick comparison shop to see what the handset only prices were. Why pay for a £30-40 per month contract to lease a handset whose value depreciates by £20 each month?

Buying direct from the manufacturer cost a lot. Brexit. Inflation. Luxury tax. Semi-conductor shortage. Choose your own excuse.

A high street retailer’s website advertised the unit for £50 less, with free next day delivery.

Apply a voucher code to knock another 10% off the price.

Make the purchase through a cashback portal to obtain a further 2% discount.

Pay for it using a reward card to reduce the price by another 1%.

Commit to selling the old handset to recoup roughly a quarter of the list price of the new one.

Still not cheap, but less expensive than it might have been.

So far, so good. A problem observed, addressed, and resolved. Or so I thought.

Years ago I had switched from using a physical SIM card to an eSIM. It had seemed like a good idea at the time. Same functionality. Same network coverage. Same price. Yet it freed up the physical SIM card slot. This meant one handset could simultaneously support two different phone numbers. No more having to carry separate work and personal phones to client sites.

The setup worked a treat, I recommend it, but only to those who have the self-discipline to step away from work without being tempted to be one of those toadying brown-nosers who is “always on”. At the constant beck and call of some pointy-headed, friendless, insomniac, micromanaging, workaholic boss. Or constantly competing in the corporate Game of Thrones against cutthroat colleagues and ambitious underlings.

But here is the thing. Swapping a physical SIM from one handset to another is simple: just shift over the card. Transferring an eSIM should be even easier. But as it turns out, the lived experience differs.

For reasons that defy explanation, when I requested my mobile network help me transfer my number to the new handset, they unhelpfully chose to immediately deactivate my eSIM, while failing to provision a new one for the new phone.

Which left me possessing double the handsets and none of the mobile network access.

The handsets could both access the internet via wifi. Could successfully communicate with the world via email or WhatsApp. Play games. Display e-books. Browse all my favourite websites.

However, it turns out what they could not do was receive SMS messages.

Which meant they could not receive two-factor authentication texts or one-time passcodes. Think about that for a moment.

How many apps, services, or websites do you use that insist on validating you still physically control your phone number?

Banks.

Brokers.

Email accounts.

Food delivery.

Pension providers.

Social media.

Tax authorities.

And after the recent introduction of Strong Customer Authentication (SCA) requirements in the United Kingdom, just about every single website that processes online payments!

Some sites do offer an alternative means of authenticating, although for many this entailed them attempting to call the customer’s phone number. The same number that was no longer connected to my handset.

Very few offered alternate means of two-factor authentication, such as via email. Fewer still supported authentication via token generating app or hardware key.

I was somewhat surprised to realise that simply being a customer was no longer enough. Now we must be customers with access to our mobile phones. Losing access to the number means losing access altogether.

The change has been gradual. Creeping. Stealthy. Yet relentless.

In this instance, it also proved more than a little annoying.

I won’t pretend this is the first time that badly implemented two-factor authentication has tripped me up. Many of the financial institutions I use overseas insist upon its usage. Several only support sending one-time passcodes to local domestic phone numbers. This creates a potential problem for ex-pats like myself. An inconvenience, yet one easily worked around via cheap pay-as-you-go burner phones.

I wish I could tell you that a humble plea to a prompt and responsive customer support team cured my woes. That a heroic help desk technician boldly stepped up, took ownership of the problem, and solved it. Alas, that would be a lie.

Instead, I’ve had a week where I’ve been paying for access to a mobile service I was unable to use.

Which just so happened to be the final week of the tax year. The last chance to top up ISAs. The week to check those salary sacrificed bonus payments made it into the pension ok. It also spanned a month end, when I would normally invest half an hour doing a cursory lap around my personal finances to keep score and ensure I hadn’t been robbed.

The experience has been an eye-opening one. An unfortunate combination of impatience and incompetence culminated in losing access to something I took for granted. That absence shone a spotlight on a major dependency I had not been consciously aware of: the tight coupling and ever increasing dependence between our mobile phones and our lives online.

Over the years I have often questioned the need for a mobile phone. Resenting the invasion of privacy, the being constantly contactable, the expectation of being “always on”. Now I realise just how difficult it would be to function in today’s world without one.

Much like the “unbanked” struggle to obtain rental accommodation or employment, today the “unphoned” would find it difficult to shop, bank, or pay bills online. Which given we increasingly live in an electronic virtual world, dominated by the provision of automated, self-service, mobile-first activities, makes reliable access to a mobile network one of the essential tools for successfully navigating modern life.

I must confess to having mixed feelings about this. On the one hand, I love the convenience. Yet I am not sure the dependence is a good thing. Particularly given how easy it proved to be to separate a mobile phone number from a handset!


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14 Comments

  1. FI-FireFighter 3 April 2022

    As I was approaching FI and preparing to leave the ‘firm’, I needed a phone as I would be losing my work one (the only job related perk I had).
    My daughter had a 2 year old fruit related phone that had similar battery issues to yours.
    I paid her a fair price for the phone (pennies compared to what a new one cost) and bought a new, better, battery with tools from a rainforest related online retailer.
    Spent 20 mins following an online tutorial from youtube and 2 years later the phone is still going strong.
    I tell people how easy and cheap it was and offer to do the actual replacement for them, but no-one has taken me up on it, can’t understand why??

    • {in·deed·a·bly} 3 April 2022 — Post author

      Thanks FI-FireFighter.

      I’ve had mixed results with getting repairs/replacements on phones. Within warranty, the smart folks at the store were able to fix it up on the spot. Outside of warranty, the prices turned eye-watering and it became a simple cost vs benefit evaluation on repair versus replace.

      On the DIY front, I’ve successfully changed a couple of screens using offmarket parts and YouTube instructions. But I must confess to once bricking my elder son’s phone attempting the same. He was not best pleased!

  2. Impersonal Finances 3 April 2022

    Like many of the technological advances that encroach upon our daily lives, the benefits of individual phone ownership probably/maybe/sort of outweigh the negatives ever so slightly. But privacy and over-dependance are becoming a steep price to pay for convenience. I have recently made more of an effort to stay off various social media apps, but usually find that something else is always waiting to take that time-filling space. Though it really is becoming impossible (for security purposes) to live without a phone, I will continue to try and minimize my time on it (and online in general).

    • {in·deed·a·bly} 4 April 2022 — Post author

      Thanks Impersonal Finances.

      A few fundamental truths there!

      The minutes remain, and we will always find a way to fill them. Whether that is making ourselves angry/envious/sad on social media, passively living in somebody else’s imagination watching Netflix, or emotionally investing in the reality television world of professional sports.

      Ultimately the solution to staying off social media is much the same as the one for stopping smoking: just stop. Simple, but not easy. Delete the apps. Don’t download them again. The conditioned behavioural responses and Jonesing for likes eventually passes. Job done.

      Finally, people will always choose convenience over what is good for us. Be it privacy, nutrition, exercise, or healthy relationships. Fundamental human nature. Makes us great to sell into, promising quick wins and easy answers.

  3. Andrew 3 April 2022

    This exact worry is why I moved my main current account, and one other credit card, to banks that lets me do 2FA via a card reader, not on my phone. I will always be able to do basic financial transactions even if I have a mobile phone disaster.

    I’ve actually grown to find the card reader more convenient when using my main computer to purchase something online: I know the card reader is always in a drawer next to my computer, whereas my phone could be in any one of several rooms around the house!

    Obviously the opposite is true when I’m using a browser on my phone away from home. Having different options is good. It disappoints me that so many banks and credit cards companies have taken the “mobile phone or nothing” approach to 2FA.

    • {in·deed·a·bly} 4 April 2022 — Post author

      Thanks Andrew.

      What I’ve found fascinating about my journeys through 2FA, password vaults, changing phones, and the like is how much the security piece is just theatre. Designed to add friction against the identity thieves, but not to stop them. Every time I’ve had a “computer says no” response I’ve been able to socially engineer the outcome I wanted through customer support, making friends with the disinterested and underpaid call centre operator, and talking them into doing what I want.

      The textbook case study is a deceased estate. The starting point for probate is incomplete information, the absence of passwords, and lots of patience. By the end, the executor of the legal will has conspiring to unlock and gain access to just about everything, distributing the spoils to the beneficiaries. It is just a matter of time and effort.

  4. David Andrews 4 April 2022

    “A high street retailer’s website advertised the unit for £50 less, with free next day delivery.

    Apply a voucher code to knock another 10% off the price.

    Make the purchase through a cashback portal to obtain a further 2% discount.

    Pay for it using a reward card to reduce the price by another 1%.”

    The above outlines the tortured processes I go through with most of my purchases. I think I’m approaching the stage in my life where it’s just much less hassle to not buy anything.

    Technology can be a great enabler … when it works as it should. We now all possess the ability to trade assets, manage our pensions, look up a myriad of sometime useful data, play all the music and watch all the video content thanks to our small devices. If you are crafty you can also conjure up a variety of free stuff.

    • {in·deed·a·bly} 4 April 2022 — Post author

      Thanks David.

      I must confess it sounds worse than it is when I write it out like that! The reward card is the default payment method, so no friction there. I uses a time versus value triage on the voucher codes and cashback site usage, in my case if the purchase is smaller than an appliance/holiday I don’t tend to worry about it.

      Back in the day I used to just buy everything off Amazon, the convenience factor and hassle free next day delivery usually outweighed any minor potential pricing arbitrage. Unfortunately, these days there is so much counterfeit, knock-off, or “reconditioned” stuff on there I tend to seek alternative suppliers for things like clothing, electronic goods, and so on. Which is a shame, as they had a great thing going but then got greedy by trading quality for volume.

  5. weenie 5 April 2022

    My phone is nearly 6 years old and I’m dreading the day when I’ll be forced to upgrade it (either due to dud battery or software no longer being supported).

    Some of the young might already be turning away from smartphone reliance, or perhaps it’s just my teenaged nephew who doesn’t mind being a bit different – the camera on his smartphone was damaged beyond repair so his mum said she’d get him a new one for Christmas. He surprisingly chose a Nokia ‘dumb phone’, which has limited apps: Whatsapp, YouTube, Google Maps and FB (he deleted FB). His mates all laugh at his ‘burner phone’ but he’s happy without TikTok, Insta etc.

    The simplicity of such a dumb phone appeals to me but sadly, I’ve become quite attached to and reliant upon several apps on my phone. That said, I can go for hours without feeling the need to check my phone, which I guess is better than some!

    • {in·deed·a·bly} 6 April 2022 — Post author

      Thanks weenie.

      Well done to your nephew. A couple of guys who used to work for me were prone to getting drunk and losing/breaking their phones. Both ended up going for the retro Nokia 3510s that look like they are from the late 90s. Both ended up happier for it, though they still used to lose them too!

  6. Claire 5 April 2022

    Those of us working in public libraries have been watching this evolution with tremendous concern. While our profession values privacy (so highly that in my home state, there is actually a public library privacy law on the books), we also see the consequences of these ‘technology or nothing’ policy shifts. I can’t tell you how many patrons we help on a daily basis who don’t have a smart phone, full stop. This isn’t even a case of losing access to one, and the headache that entails, but just not having the resources to have one at all.

    Most recently, the steep increase in unemployment claim fraud caused the state to contract with a company to do identity verification. It required people submitting claims for unemployment benefits to verify their identity with a video-enabled smartphone listed under their legal name. They couldn’t use a friend’s phone. They couldn’t call and talk to a representative. They couldn’t even come to the library and use one of our Zoom conference rooms to meet with an agent. It had to be their own personal smartphone, or their claim wouldn’t be processed.

    These were people living at the very cliff-edge of disaster, or already on the way down. Folks facing eviction, or already living on the streets. People who had barely scraped by on whatever job had now let them go, leaving them to try to claim the pittance of unemployment insurance they had coming to them.

    But to the big tech company contracted by the state for identity verification, not having a smartphone was automatically equivalent to not being a real person. Only a bot wouldn’t be able to meet their requirements as far as they were concerned.

    It’s just the latest in a long line, of course. Five or six years ago, places like King Soopers and Safeway (major supermarket chains) stopped taking paper job applications. You had to have access to a computer, have an email address, and be comfortable enough with technology to create a jobseeker account in order to apply for a position stocking shelves or bagging groceries.

    Then it was the increasing requirements for password difficulty. Every site has its own minimum length and combination of characters you have to use. Password managers are hugely helpful, but again require a baseline comfort with technology. For many patrons, their password manager was the spiral bound notebook they carried everywhere, with website, username, and full password carefully spelled out (including any capitalization notes…), and often the answers to the security challenge questions for good measure.

    And now 2FA. Supposedly a huge step forward in security (or so our mandatory monthly cybersecurity training tells us), but as you pointed out, relatively easy to navigate around in situations where it really matters. But devastating to those being left ever further behind.

    Sorry to rant on a bit, but this one hits very close to home for me!

    • {in·deed·a·bly} 6 April 2022 — Post author

      Thanks Claire.

      I feel for the people you describe, who are unable to meet the ever rising minimum criteria to qualify for assistance. Unfortunately these measures tend to be by design, raise the bar and less people qualify to claim, reducing the cost of the assistance program. Somewhere, a management consultant will be receiving a pat on the back and a non-recurring performance bonus for that effort.

  7. Malcolm 10 April 2022

    Some years ago visiting my son in Glasgow I noticed a Big Issue seller -the charity magazine-selling with the mag in one hand and his mobile phone in the other.I remarked on this and was told that it was OK -even those supposedly living on the margins could possess a phone and still be classed as destitute -another lesson for the old man on current attitudes
    As an aside a famous author from my neck of the woods Amy Liptrot has written a good autobiography “The Instant” which beautifully describes how the modern generation live their lives on their phones
    Watching modern parents coping with this phenomenon is also interesting-the only solution is to remove kids to a no wi fi area regularly -a current child is in Sri Lanka with her kids -an option not open to all of us!-or make sure they are heavily involved in sport and/or music (where you have to put the phone down for long periods of time)

    • {in·deed·a·bly} 10 April 2022 — Post author

      Thanks Malcolm.

      You make an interesting observation. To some extent I think having been raised with screens, kids are perhaps better at self-policing their usage than their parents may be. For example, my fifteen-year-old son figured out Instagram was just posers and oneupmanship, everyone pretending to live fabulous lives and doing things for likes. He deleted his account.

      He likes tiktok, but has learned to steer clear of the comments. Uses WhatsApp to chat with his friends, but left most of the group chats where keyboard warriors endlessly fight religious wars over things that don’t really matter.

      I wish I had possessed his self-awareness back when I was fifteen!

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