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Luddite Chronicles: Whatever Happened To The Telephone

Why must I feel like a washed-up nobody just because I have no need for a new "data plan"? All I want to do is make (and pay for) a simple phone call.

A red phone booth alongside the road

"Calling used to be an ordinary if not always a pleasurable activity"

Alidad Vassigh

-Essay-

MADRID — I recently tried telephoning my mother in Tehran. By that, I don't mean some kind of 1950s rotary phone or 1990s cordless relic. I've long embraced the convenience of using my mobile phone — though now we are told that it is a smart phone.


Well, I couldn't do it. A bit too smart? Once the Tehran number began ringing, I began to hear a strange digital whimper before the call up and died on me. Combining logic and paranoia, I concluded that I cannot use "my" phone to call a landline in Tehran. It has nothing to do with the receiving end, but rather that it's not included in my outgoing Spanish tarifa, the fixed 10-euro fee I've picked, valid for a month.

But you apparently can't use it for one big long faraway call if you wanted. If I "top up," the money just gets sucked into more computing bytes rather than what I want to do: talk to my mother.

Technology does not always favor free-market capitalism

Calling used to be an ordinary if not always a pleasurable activity. Just five years ago, I would recharge my phone with 5 or 10 euros, and speak to relatives in Tehran until the money ran out. And then recharge.

It was expensive, but I was making my consumer choice. One reason for buying my first mobile phone in London in 2001, was precisely for essential calls, which means family in Tehran. I remember using it to call my parents after the 9/11 attacks. The other reason, of course, was consumer compulsion — everyone else had one.

I'm a bad consumer of our electronic world

It's another case of technology disrupting not just free-market capitalism, but freedom itself, as my Swedish colleague so aptly wrote after the recent Facebook outage.

There is WhatsApp of course, which they tell us is the telephone. And although I like to tell myself Iran "keeps cutting the Internet," the application regrettably works most days. The point is, I don't feel I am calling. There is no formality in touching a screen and being connected for free. No, what I want is to make a call and pay for it in cash. Anyway, they're going to get my money...

photo of four old pay phones in Canada

Old pay phones in Canada

Maarten van den Heuvel

Bad consumer of electronics

A few days ago, the service provider, Vodafone, called again to propose a package to include far more bytes than I could ever eat, and stuff I could never understand. They want a contract, but I won't give them my bank account. I told the saleswomen that I don't look at the internet on my phone, so I don't need a xillion bytes. I adopted what was for me a benign, respectful tone, but realized afterward I may have sounded more like Doctor Evil in therapy.

Clearly, the problem is at this end of the line. I'm a bad consumer of our electronic world. I admit I've used the microwave every now and then, and I remember successfully sending a fax, circa 1999. The answering machine came and went and I never left anyone a message. I hate LED lighting. You get the idea.

Having said all that, maybe you can still call Tehran on my phone, and I just bungled it all. I don't care to find out. I know that near my apartment in Madrid, there's a Bangladeshi-owned shop that still has telephone booths.

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