It was a Sunday morning, and we were out for a walk with our new Lab puppy, Stanley, who suddenly had something in his mouth. That wasn’t unusual, but this time it was an iPhone 5, which, we discovered on returning home, was fully working, although locked.
Good dog! You see, we have a (decidedly first-world) problem in our family, which is a predicament for many reasonably affluent households. We tend to lose or break these expensive gadgets with what seems a practiced efficiency. Or somebody steals them. Or they stop working for no apparent reason, or because we smash them in the car door.
With four of us on a complicated service plan, that’s quite a lot of phones over a rather few number of years. To keep us in phones, I have “upgraded” and “renewed” the contracts of these plans so often that I am reasonably confident that when my appointed time comes, it will take the form of a customer counsellor associate reminding me that I still have another three months and 12 days to my next upgrade. Cellphone contracts: our current secular purgatory.
Maybe it was the look in a puppy’s eyes; maybe the memory of my daughter’s (repeated) distress about her lost phones; or maybe a shred of decency struggling to express itself – whatever the prompt, by the time we got home, it was clear that our ownership of the phone should be a brief one, and that we would see it returned to its rightful, three-year contract holder.
You would think finding the owner of a device whose physical location can be pinpointed from outer space would be a simple matter. You would think.
First, phone the service provider, “Harry’s.” Explain how you found the phone; offer to read the serial number on the device; suggest they contact the person attached to that serial number. Boop-boop. Keystrokes. Done.
Nope. Worried about “privacy concerns,” the Harry’s counsellor told me the simple and obvious solution was neither; that they couldn’t possibly identify the owner of the phone to me; no, we cannot invite the owner to contact you themselves because of “privacy concerns;” yes, I am staring at the name of the registered owner of that phone right now, and she appears to live next door to you. Sorry.
But the counsellor did have a few suggestions. First, call the local Harry’s Store; they might be able to help. Second, call the police and turn it in to them. Third, enjoy your new phone.
So I called the store and asked if they could help me return the phone to its owner.
“Sure, no problem,” said Brad. “Just bring it in and leave it with us. We’ll look after it.”
“Oh, that’s great. I’ll be in shortly,” I said, realizing I had no intention whatsoever of giving that phone to Brad.
Where did that mistrust come from? As a culture, we have become altogether feral in our relationships with these devices. Even armed with good intentions, we struggle to do the right thing in relation to them. Maybe Brad has an absentminded family member who needs a new phone that he can’t afford. Maybe he also has a three-year contract on a $1,000 piece of junk that apparently defines him. Maybe his phone – or its absence – also determines the kind and the quality of his relationships with other people.
I felt a shared sense of purpose and plight with my new soul-bro, Brad, but he was quite clearly not going to be returning this phone to its owner any more than I was going to give it to him. So I called the police. “Why don’t you bring it down to the station, and we’ll look after it,” said Officer Chip.
“We will not part with the Precious!” I yelled and slammed down the phone.
Well, no, that didn’t actually happen, but it might as well have. Like Sauron’s ring, this phone had become both utter burden and consuming desire: “One phone to rule them all, one phone to find them/ One phone to bring them all and in the darkness bind them.” Of course, the cops were mere servants of the Dark One.
With a hobbit’s grim determination, I carried on. My clever teenager discovered we could see the name of the last person contacted by the locked phone’s owner before it was lost. Social media connected us.
“Sure, yeah. let’s meet and I’ll return it to him,” read the response message. We had also surmised the white phone in the pink case with a monthly calendar reminder to “take pill” had once belonged to a female. Blocked.
I tweeted about a phone found in such and such neighbourhood. Turned out the phone belonged to at least six different people, one in Texas. My teenager offered to sell the phone and keep the money. Sadly, I think he’s the only honest one left among us.
So I keep the phone close, in the growing darkness, turning it over in my mind and in my heart, waiting our appointed time of connection – with the phone, with the owner – or with obsolescence, mine or the phone’s, whichever comes first. Meanwhile, someone out there has a new phone, probably with a three-year contract. And here, at the end of it all, Stanley has a new chew toy. Good dog.
Bryce Traister lives in London, Ont.
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