Enough. At 69, I had finally grown weary of hearing myself carp and snort about the startling rise in smartphone popularity, eagerly siding with social critics who forecast gloomy consequences for human interaction. I had a basic cellphone. I called people. They called me. We talked. I didn’t have to communicate by hunting through the alphabet on a tiny touchscreen keyboard. Vocal cords did the job just fine.
But a lifelong curiosity about gadgets as well as some spare time stirred me to figure out what all the fuss is about. Over the course of a couple of months last summer, I acquired and then swapped one used smartphone after another, advancing from small screens to bigger screens, from one brand and operating system to another, all the while trolling Craigslist for last year’s castaways in a fickle marketplace driven by change and upgrade.
I admired the superb build quality of most smartphones and finally began to understand their appeal to enthusiasts who know they can reach out to anywhere in the world just by tapping a few buttons while strolling down the street. Smartphone-specific terms such as Super Amoled, LTE, Gorilla Glass, rooted, oleophobic, jailbroken, quad-core, unlocked and Android Jelly Bean eased into my vocabulary.
And I know what a bricked smartphone is. That means it’s dead and that it resists all efforts by its owner to revive it. It can serve as a doorstop as effectively as a brick, hence the description. But “Bricked for parts or restore” was the Craigslist headline for a particular model I hadn’t tried yet, and the seller claimed it was “in mint condition without a scratch.” The asking price was only a few dollars. I replied to the ad and started an e-mail conversation that I will never forget.
Like me, the seller enjoyed swapping smartphones and he said he had exchanged a favourite for this one after it was presented by a guy who seemed to be in a hurry to close the deal. Apparently, the phone powered on when they met and it seemed to go through a reassuring boot-up, coming to rest on the home screen.
The deal was done and the traders parted. The device never powered on again. Its new owner felt he had been cheated. He just wanted to move on from an unpleasant experience.
We wrote back and forth a few more times. I began to get an impression of what kind of person the seller was. The e-mail “From” line had already confirmed he was a male. He seemed to be both smart and literate. His tone suggested a busy professional, too impatient to be bothered with repair shops and already using a new replacement anyway. I figured the phone was worth the gamble; hopeful I would eventually find a fix, I proposed we meet somewhere convenient between his place and mine. I assumed he had a car.
He replied, “My parents don’t drive and I’m only 14. Can you come here?” I stared at the screen, allowing agitated thoughts to tumble and swirl for a few minutes. He’s just a kid. I’m planning a transaction with someone 55 years younger than I am. What will people think? Will they suspect I’m some kind of predator? I want the phone, but maybe I should back away. This is getting complicated. And how do I now start communicating with a kid I thought was an adult?
I decided to carry on as though his age disclosure was irrelevant and agreed to meet at his home but only if a parent was present throughout. “No problem.” He added that he was home-schooled and that both parents were around most of the time.
Then he made a startling offer: “Why don’t you just take the phone and pay me something you think is fair but only if it can be fixed?” I shook my head in confusion. Here was someone who’d been badly burned by a stranger but who seemed ready to invest his trust in another. Could I even remember what it was like to be 14, long before the protective cement of adulthood had hardened?
I thanked him, but in the interests of fairness decided to make a counteroffer. I told him I owned two popular smartphones that had been handed over by friends moving to newer models. They were in good condition; I wasn’t using either one. Would he accept them in trade? He was interested. We made plans to meet in a few days.
His mother opened the front door of a modest house and then introduced her husband and the kid. He looked even younger than his age. His arm stuttered up and down, then left and right, as we shook hands. He presented a smartphone in immaculate condition. In exchange, I gave him my two phones and encouraged him to take all the time he needed to assess them carefully. He disappeared into the living room while his parents and I chatted in the hall. They were obviously proud of his prodigious skill. “He can fix anything,” his father said. Then he glanced at what I was holding. “Well, almost anything.”
The kid returned a few minutes later, announcing that both phones were up and running and that he was happy with the swap. So was I, with the swap and with everything that led to it.
The bricked smartphone still sits on my desk, still a question mark, but useful as a paperweight. It may never be a working smartphone again. That no longer matters.
Patrick Conlon lives in Toronto.