A eulogy for smartphones I'll never understand

Published on 2024-02-12

Content warning: death?

When I was younger, I used to be really into jailbreaking Apple devices. I had an old iPod--old enough that jailbreaking it was relatively easy. Back then, the fact that I knew how to jailbreak my iPod didn't mean much to me. It was a cool thing I knew how to do, to make cool modifications to my device that Apple otherwise didn't want me to have.

Today, I own a Samsung smartphone. I've never figured out how to root Samsung devices. Any Android devices, really. I'm not sure why. It seems like it'd be easier. The Android ecosystem has always felt more open by design. Maybe Samsung products are particularly mean about this sort of thing. Maybe I just don't have the energy to investigate these kinds of problems like I used to.

But either way, confronting this reality that I may never be able to root my phone, that the relationship between me and the software it runs will always be mediated by Samsung, it hurts quite a bit. It hurts because I know one day I'll have to give it up long before its usable life has expired, and there'll be very little I can do about it.

The computer I use today would likely run Windows 11 very poorly. It can, however, run Debian alright. Having both the rights and technical knowhow to install different, more suitable software on this computer has greatly extended its usable life. It's saved another perfectly good microcontroller from slowly rotting away in a dump. It's kept another microcontroller from senselessly needing to be manufactured.

Over the course of my life I've found that with the right knowhow, choosing the software you run on your computer is a relatively straightforward, algorithmic process. Choosing software for your phone on the other hand seems to be quite difficult. Google doesn't want you to have a say. If you can squeeze your way past Google, then Samsung will get in your way too. I mean, literally, the thing that motivated me writing this article was the fact that I recently learned I had tripped a security measure on my phone meaning I need to keep it on and do nothing for seven consecutive days before I can move to the next step in the rooting process. Why? I have no idea. I have no idea what purpose this could possibly serve besides incrementally trying to get me to lose hope that things could ever be better.

I may never figure out how to root my phone. I'm sure I could given enough gumption, but I don't know if I have it. I don't know if it's worth having. The thought of having to throw out or even let a perfectly good microcontroller sit idle for all of eternity feels like such a tragic waste. The amount of energy that went into manufacturing it, the externalities that were never accounted for in its production, the labour that real humans invested into its creation... All gone for no reason. But I have a life outside screwing around with my smartphone. And the knowledge that one wrong step could brick my phone to the extent that'd I'd need to replace the main board is almost worse.

For what? What could Samsung possibly be protecting me against? Why is me choosing the software I run so heretical that my phone needs to be destroyed in retribution? Why it matters so much that I can't do silly computer things with the phone I bought is genuinely beyond my comprehension. If there is a good reason why we ought to be so helpless to repair computers it is way, way above me.

A cargo cult in the imperial core

Desktop and laptop computers certainly aren't perfect in this regard, but it is really strange that computer manufactures decided to make smartphones so much less accessible in terms of consumer rights to dictate the software they run. I fear every new phone purchased is a validation of that decision.

This isn't meant to be a scathing critique of computer manufacturers. There's plenty of those out there already. More than anything, to me, it just feels sad. Countless devices will continue to go to waste because of it.

It feels like it's hard to have a meaningful relationship with a device that is this kind of "premature e-waste"--designed to be obsolete at the will of forces much greater than I could even imagine. But I suppose that's just the nature of life. Everything will disappear one day and there's nothing we can do about it. It's particularly sad that these devices in particular will disappear by the will of consumer capitalism, but even if we took it out of the equation, it remains that nothing lasts forever.

I suppose all that's left is to enjoy it while it lasts.

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