Independent Thinking

On technology and freelance life

22 November 2013

It started with an iPad. I stood up to let a woman off the bus, placed the iPad on the seat next to me as I gathered up my bags and watched as it slithered off the edge and on to the floor. My first thought when I picked it up was that the pattern of broken glass was strangely beautiful. It looked, I thought, like the branches of a tree, or perhaps a fountain. My second thought was that I might as well have just taken eight fifty-pound notes and set them alight.

My response, apart from the stream of not-quite Anglo Saxon that was bouncing round my head, was quite modern. In the absence of what we used to call initiative, I asked Twitter what to do. I couldn’t do this on my phone. My iPhone, which felt like something from Mars when I got it three years ago, now felt more like a Penny-farthing. Emails were so slow to download that I often felt a telegram would have been quicker. Getting into Twitter was like starting up one of those lawnmowers where you have to keep yanking on a string. And the bit where you look at tweets sent to you, by clicking on a symbol which might as well be “me, me, me”, had disappeared. When you clicked on it, you were left hanging in a space Dante would surely have had a name for, where you couldn’t quite abandon hope, but thought it was more than likely to be in vain.

Since I couldn’t use my iPad, and I couldn’t use my iPhone, I used my MacBook Air. (One of my bosses at the Indy once talked about the over-use of the “vertical pronoun” in columns. This was before the “vertical pronoun” became part of the names of many of the objects we use. He would already have taken a big blue pencil to this blog.)  When I say “my” MacBook Air, I mean the MacBook Air I had to get to replace the one I had stolen a couple of months ago. Once I’d got hold of a replacement, it took me three days to get it up and running. I had to pay someone to transfer the data. I had to call people in Mumbai, and Dublin, and the Philippines to get “reactivation” keys for things I’d paid for, but which the thief – who probably sold it for £50 for his next fix - had now got. Some of what technicians call “data” and I call “my life” had been lost, but some of it, thank God, Allah, or the God of small things, hadn’t.

So, I went on my newish MacBook Air and asked my “followers” about the iPad that now looked like a fountain, or a tree. What I really wanted to say, of course, was: save me. Save me from this expense, stress, hassle. Scoop me up. Set me free. The Twitterati were divided. Some thought the fountain (or tree) could, for a hundred quid, be turned back into Orwell’s window pane, or something like it. Some thought I was (to put it bluntly) screwed. I was torn. £100 is better than £400, but it’s still a hundred quid. And I was, as a freelancer, shedding the pounds (but not the flesh ones, unfortunately) much faster than I was getting them in.

If you want to mend a smashed iPad on a Sunday, it isn’t easy. John Lewis said it would take a week. Apple said I would have to get an appointment at a “Genius” bar, but I couldn’t get one until the next day. The place I’d found off Tottenham Court Road which claimed to do it more cheaply seemed to believe, quaintly, that Sunday was a day of rest. So did the place in Ilford. Freelancers know that days of rest are things you have when you have something called a salary. So, shelving technology challenge number 1, I decided to tackle technology challenge number 2. Phone like Penny Farthing. Texts like telegrams. Twitter stuck in Dante’s seventh circle of hell. I wanted, I told the man at the O2 shop, something that was as fast as possible and as cheap as possible. Beyond that, I said, though I didn’t quite put it like this, I couldn’t give a flying fuck. He gazed at my iPhone, as if it was something that should be put in a museum. He started talking about rams, and something called 3G and something called 4G, and minutes, and data, and texts. He wrote some figures down on a piece of paper, which were what I’d have to pay each month for what he told me I needed, and the figure was enormous. When I frowned, he said he’d talk to his “manager”, disappeared for as long as it would take to have a fictional conversation with a fictional manager, and offered me the figure he’d planned for me to pay all along.

It was only when I got home that I realised half my contacts weren’t on the new phone. Also, that I didn’t know how to use it. There was no instruction leaflet, because there’s never an instruction leaflet for anything nowadays. The people who make these things think everyone’s got a teenage son.

The next morning, which was a Monday, and technically the first day of the week, though actually just another day in the technological purgatory that seems to have replaced anything you could call normal life, I was answering emails on the one machine I had that wasn’t broken, and that I knew how to use, when the doorbell rang. Oh good. A big box from Amazon. A printer, in fact, to replace the printer that seemed to be allergic to the newish MacBook Air. Time to tackle technology challenge number 3.

The printer, once I’d wrenched it out of its box, did have an instruction leaflet. The main instruction in it seemed to be telepathy. I did my best. I really did my best. I spent about an hour doing my best. The right cables were, as far as I could tell, in the right places. A light that was meant to be on was on, but the light that was meant to be on wasn’t, as far as I could tell, meant to be flashing. Five times, I tried to download the software. Five times, I got messages telling me that this wasn’t, for reasons that weren’t quite clear to me, possible. Three times, I tried to upload (or is it download?) the CD-Rom. This also, it seemed, wasn’t possible. I searched for a number. The number said it was for “support”, but when it meant “support”, it meant a robot.  The robot wasn’t all that good at support. The robot was good at menus. The robot was also good at putting you on hold, and knowing that the call was costing you quite a lot.

When I spoke to a human being, I nearly cheered. The human had an Irish accent, which made me think of cosy evenings in cosy pubs. But the hour he spent with me wasn’t all that cosy. Five times I tried downloading the software, on the instructions he gave me. Twice, I tried the CD-Rom. When we finally got a whirring from the machine, it was followed by a click. The paper got stuck. I followed his instructions and removed it. It got stuck again. We tried it again, and it got stuck again. By this time the man from Hewlett Packard sounded as if he was close to tears, too.

I needed a printer. Sometimes, you can use an iPad like a very heavy printed document, but if you don’t have an iPad or a printer, and you’ve been booked to do some “consultancy” work, you can’t really turn up and say sorry, the dog ate my printer, and my iPad, and – I’m beginning to think - my life. So I drove up to Tottenham Hale, to a “retail park” full of printers. One of them, surely, would work.

The man in Staples was kind. When I told him that I couldn’t go anywhere until I knew, in a real, true, ontological way that any printer I paid for would actually work with my newish and already quite irritating MacBook Air, he was kind. He ripped open a box, stuck a CD-Rom in my MacBook Air’s external disc drive, and watched. Together, we watched a bar that was grey go blue, but together we watched that bar reach a certain point, and get stuck. We tried it again. It got stuck again. We tried it again. It got stuck again. He wasn’t, he told me sadly, after three rounds of raised and dashed hopes, a Mac specialist. Perhaps I should go to PC world?

So I did. I would, I told them, buy pretty much any printer that worked. I watched as a man clicked boxes on my machine, and I whipped out a card so that I could spend more money that I hadn’t yet earned. I picked up the box. I went out to the car. The headlights were on. The battery was flat.

I asked two Poles in a van if they could help me jumpstart the car. They kindly tried. They failed. I called the AA. I waited an hour and a half. When they called to say they were on the way, I didn’t know how to answer the phone. I tapped it, but apparently you’re not meant to tap a Samsung. You’re meant to swipe a Samsung. Any teenage boy, apparently, can tell you that.

The AA man showed me how to answer the phone. He jump-started the car. He told me, quite sternly – if I’m honest, quite thrillingly sternly – that I had to run the engine for half an hour. The car worked. I got home. I had a printer that worked. I had a phone that would work, if I knew how to use it. I did, I’m quite proud to say, work out how to set the alarm.

It didn’t go off. I set the alarm for 6.45, because I had a train to catch at 8.25, and the bloody alarm bloody didn’t go off. I woke up at 7.45. I threw on some clothes, ran to the bus stop, leapt on a bus, ran to the Oyster machines at Seven Sisters, leapt on a Tube, ran to the ticket machines at King’s Cross, realised the train was actually going from St Pancras, ran to the platform, and caught the train with 11 seconds to spare. The conference was about community action of various kinds, but all I could think about, to be honest, was how much I wanted a shower.

The next morning, I drove to Ilford. I’d found a place that said it could mend my iPad for a lot less than Apple. “Just walk in,” it said. That, of course, is after you’ve worked out how to get to Ilford. And after you’ve found a parking space. And paid the kind of parking fees you’d expect to pay outside Buckingham Palace. But they mended my iPad. For £55, and a morning spent getting there and back and waiting for it to be mended, they mended my iPad. Reader, I could have married them.

In five days I didn’t earn a penny. There is no moral to this. It's just a glimpse of freelance life.

PS In spite of all the brand names scattered through it, this blog post is not sponsored by Apple. The money, actually, is all flowing the other way.

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