Happy Birthday in the Electronic Age

by John Delach

Last Saturday I celebrated a major birthday turning the page and joining the ranks of family and friends already septuagenarians. The occasion reminded me of the birthday greeting I received from my cousin, Bill, ten-years ago when I first opened my previous chapter as a sexagenarian: “Just think, John, if you had died yesterday, at age 59, people would have  said: ‘How awful, he was so young.’ Now they’ll say: ‘So it goes, ah, he lived a full life.”

This time around, instead being surprised by a humorous message or one profound, or silly, serious or even loving, the one that grabbed me came from a machine. Mary Ann and I spent ten-days in Florida in the week leading up to my birthday, the last three on Sanibel Island. By a very human act, I had diminished our available cash half-way into our trip by leaving a chunk in a hotel safe in Orlando when we checked out. (Fortunately, Mary Ann’s call to the Hilton retrieved the lost billfold and its contents, but the money would not reach us until we arrived back in Port Washington.)

The morning after we arrived in Sanibel, I said to Mary Ann, “I’m fairly certain that there is a Wells Fargo bank on the island where I can get cash from my account without incurring a fee. Let’s go there on our way to lunch.”

So I pulled the rental Jeep up to this ATM, inserted my debit card and entered my pin. The usual menu appeared – I chose; GET CASH – Enter the Amount – I chose; $200 – Receipt? – I chose; No… But wait, before the cash was dispensed the ATM flashed on its screen: Happy Birthday John!

JESUS H. “JUMP UP AND DOWN” CHRIST, THE F****** ATM was telling me to have a happy birthday. AN ATM WAS TELLING ME TO HAVE A HAPPY BIRTHDAY!


“Mary Ann, look, look at the ATM.”

She did, shook her head and replied, “Talk about Big Brother.”

Inside I knew that this was just another technological assault on the old people and as a newly minted septuagenarian, I object to the velocity in the growth of our electronic age. Fellow travelers, we are screwed. They just throw this stuff at us without care, concern or condolences. Take the development that just broke last week; Mark Zuckerberg, (29), the man who brought the world, Facebook, bought out WhatsApp from the relatively two older men who founded it, Brian Acton, (42) and Jan Koum, (38). The deal was for lots of stock and options in Facebook that on the bottom end will yield these two gentlemen and their minions a minimum of $16 billion and at the top end, $19 billion!

A week ago, I had no idea who WhatsApp was and what they do but, if something is worth nineteen billion semolians, I wanted to find out more. I think I have this right so here goes: Simply put, WhatsApp is the largest of a number of new providers that enable their subscribers to communicate text messages almost for free over the internet regardless of the type of device either party is using (ex. Android, iPhone, etc.) thereby bypassing telephone providers and their per-text charges.

Here is how the New York Times explained it: “This means that someone who sent 5,000 messages over WhatsApp, a not unreasonable (monthly) number for some overactive teenagers, would pay about a penny in data fees. If 5,000 (SMS)* texts were sent at AT&T’s nonplan rate of 20 cents a message, the sender would be out $1,000 which is 100,000 times WhatsApp’s price.”

I hope you are still with me on this and that, so far, it makes sense. WhatsApp has 450 million users and is growing. But read on, this is where we go off of the rails; again the NY Times: “It is still unclear whether WhatsApp can make a lot of money providing very cheap texts. Today, the app is free to use for a year, after which it charges a user $1 a year.”

In addition the folks at WhatsApp pride themselves on not collecting a lot of data about the users nor do they accept ads and have pledged to remain ad free. So, unless I am missing something that is staring me in the face, this means that aside from the buck a user they get, WhatsApp has no revenue. So I ask: “How in hell can a company with this limited revenue be worth $16 to $19 billion dollars?

It is times like this that I really, really feel not just old, worse, much worse than just feeling old. I feel, lost, out of it and vulnerable to this brave new electronic world. Forget trying to understand Bitcoin and frankly I still don’t get hashtag. By the way, when did the pound sign become hashtag? I had to look it up in Wikipedia just to see how to spell hashtag correctly!

#Oh what’s the hell, let’s get a drink.

*SMS: The thing in your phone that allows you to send text messages through the same system that sends your mobile telephone calls.