The Smartphone Diaries

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In the 15th Century China shut its doors to foreigners and new technologies. In 2017 Rod Coddold, a foreigner who had long since shut his doors to new technologies, went to China and bought a smartphone. What followed is described here.

Day 1

Don’t know how to use it. It’s like everything is written in Chinese.

Day 2

Everything I wanted a smartphone for turns out to be censored here. Google Maps, Facebook, Gmail, all banned. And everything else that I need – Uber, food delivery, and all the alternatives to Google Maps are all in Chinese. I don’t know whether I’m ordering dinner or calling the police.

Day 3

I now have a Chinese bank account which means all the smart payment methods they have here (they are way ahead of us on this one) are now operational. I have just paid for a meal by getting the waiter to scan a barcode on my smartphone. Mind blown.

Day 4

My bank account and smartphone have also enabled me to sign up to the Shanghai equivalent of Boris bikes, except here they are a hundred times better. I can find a bike, scan its barcode and be bicycling merrily, perilously, down the street within 5 seconds. And when I’ve arrived where I need to be I can hop off, lock it with a single gesture and leave it on the pavement or wherever I please. No docking stations or any faffing around with debit cards. Makes Boris bikes look decidedly 20th century.

Day 5

I am now listening to podcasts (often whilst riding a bike – this has led to one or two hairy moments). I listen to them on my way around town. This seems like a wonderful use of my commuting time. I can still look around and enjoy the sights of a rain blurred Shanghai road, and my chances of getting hit by a car are only marginally higher.

Day 6

Because my phone was bought in China the predictive text it comes with was not meant for English. Which means that either I’m typing at about ten words per minute or my messages end up looking something like: “pkeass csn yoi help.me.wigh.my.smarrpponr.”

Day 7

For the first time I have sat through dinner looking at my smartphone. This isn’t a faux pas in China. No-one even remarks on it.

This makes me a terrible hypocrite. When people did this to me back in England I hated it and never hesitated to point out how rude it was. Not that this was necessary – I feel most people in England are aware that staring at a screen is not allowed at mealtimes.

But in China nobody seems to care. It’s like they’ve just replaced pudding with smartphone time. I look up for a moment. There are eight of us round the table for dinner: all of us are on our smartphones. It’s a strangely compelling sight. I would keep watching but I was just in the middle of something…

Day 8 (written on my smartphone) 

I have discovered the horror of the failing battery icon in tge top rifht hanf of my screen. Will I havr enough to last the night.  Will I be able to find my friends tonight I have nit.written down their address becausr I didnt  thunk i had to. nor coukd i. Its in chinese. Even if I coyld who would I ask?  Nor have I memoris.the map for.thesame.reason.  The only.place.I.can go.without assistance  is.home or.the.officwneither bide.  wrll for a food sarurdya nifht. Oh.duck.it.

Day 9

With the help of a nightclub bouncer I manage to order a cab using the Chinese equivalent of Uber. I copy and paste the address from my notes without any problems, but then it comes up with 10 suggestions, none of which I can read. If I click the wrong one who knows where I will end up?

Day 10

Shit just got real. I now have Swype. I can now type Kierkegaard, Postmodernism, Defenestration and Confucianism all without taking my finger off the screen. How extravagant. Quite Splendiferous. Percolate.

Day 11

The little blinking light which alerts me to the fact that I have mail has come to seem like the all-seeing eye of Sauron. I think that I am busy working, or fully engrossed in a conversation, but somehow the little blinking eye always catches my attention. And somehow, no matter whether I have unread messages or not, IT’S ALWAYS BLINKING. Even now I check every communication app and find nothing, lock the screen to go back to writing and THE LIGHT IS STILL BLINKING. It’s like an ulcer in my mind. I cannot ignore it. My brain is hardwired to get a dopamine hit from social approval and this light is playing havoc with my expectations. I now check my phone about once every 5 minutes.

Day 12

With the help of kind Chinese contacts who send me the occasional Chinese address to copy and paste I now have maps and public transport down. This is making my professional and personal life immeasurably easier. I am a private tutor so I have lessons at clients’ homes all over the city, generally two or three a day. Normally I’d have to look up all the addresses beforehand and memorise the routes. And it’s not as if I can stop and ask for directions because nobody speaks English. God knows how many times I would have got lost without it.

Day 13

Today I did that thing where I walked into someone because we were both looking at our screens.

Day 14

No one reads books in China. Look up and down the metro carriage you I can see hundreds and hundreds of smartphones and not a single book. Is this a precursor of what’s to come for the next generation? Imagine a world where no-one has read 1984 because they’re too busy playing candycrush. It doesn’t bear thinking about.

Day 15-20

Have not had time to write my smartphone diaries as I’ve been playing candycrush.

Day 21

I am loving these podcasts. This is perhaps the only thing about my new smartphone that I don’t feel slightly conflicted about. Podcasts soak up those moments of the day when I could not conceivably be bettering myself in any other way. Walking to the metro, and walking through the streets, I drink in all sorts of interesting information, but lose nothing of the view. I have learnt amazing, wonderful things and have had my mind opened up in all sorts of ways. This truly is time won. And when I get to the station I’ve learnt now to put my phone away and pick up my book. That way I don’t have to sacrifice any reading time either. I might change my mind if I get run over because I couldn’t hear a car coming through my noise cancelling headphones, but so far I am 100% on board.

Day 22

The pudding/smartphone replacement is now a confirmed fact. The main courses get cleared away and out come the smartphones. I try and do both by looking up pictures of a sherry trifle.

Day 23

It’s ironic. Smartphones are supposed to save you time. But because I get bored and fidgety I end up checking Facebook or writing emails during the day that could happily have waited till the evening when I’m in front of my laptop and could type them up far quicker. Or I find myself walking incredibly slowly as I try to reply to a message whilst walking down the street, a message that was most likely of no importance anyway.

Of course I could simply be disciplined, cut out unnecessary messaging and save up e-mails till the end of the day. But other than pissing off my girlfriend this is simply against my nature. It’s like having an open bottle of beer in my hand. Sure I could wait, but I’m just not going to.

If the time spent walking down the street was truly wasted time then you could say that I was still saving time. But the truth is that I like looking around me as I go about my day, taking in the small details, watching people. It’s valuable mental space. And I value it much more highly than time spent looking at a screen.

Day 24

I have now been added to my family whatsapp group. This is lovely. All day long I am cheered up by little snapshots into their lives and sweet photos of baby cousins. I can share in their accomplishments, enjoy their engagements and envy their holidays. And there is nothing of the social-media-my-life-is-better-than-yours-dynamic going on here. It’s just taking pleasure in others’ pleasure. Which is one definition of love I feel.

But even here there is a darkside. I am the youngest member of a large family and a born and bred attention seeker. I start to notice that I turn to whatsapp the moment I feel lonely (this is happening increasingly often here). I start to use the group as a way to seek approval, or make myself feel better.

It works like this. I’ll make a joke or share a link, and then spend the next half an hour obsessively checking whether any of my older cousins have laughed or replied. And when they do I always want more. This is addiction pure and simple.

Conclusions

I feel lucky to have gone into the whole thing with my eyes open. Seven years late to the smartphone bandwagon, I have had plenty of time to notice the effects on my peers. I had a rough idea of the good and the bad side of smartphones. I knew what to expect and what to watch out for.

Not so for the vast population of young users seven years ago, unconsciously conscripted into a dependency they could neither have seen coming, nor resisted even if they had. Adolescence is an age in which we are evolutionary programmed to seek the approval of our peers, and suddenly we have highly addictive handheld devices through which we are connected to everyone anywhere. Is it any wonder that insecurity is the hallmark of our generation?

I’m not saying that all this is necessarily a bad thing. It’s just that no-one had seriously thought about the consequences before we were already hooked. We were the guinea pigs of the internet revolution, and it’s still not clear whether the experiment has worked.

There are winners and losers all over the place and change is happening faster than the dust can settle. What we lose in interpersonal skills we gain in empathy across borders. Time wasted on clickbait is gained on Citymapper. And apathy through clicktivism is won back in the excitement of crowdfunded charity campaigns and decentralised political power.

In any case it’s pointless to moan. Smartphones aren’t going anywhere and the technology is only going to get better. The important lesson to learn is that all this technology is only as good as the people using them. So use them positively. Use your social media pages as tools for social change. Draw people’s attention to positive action that they can take. Share something beautiful, not something vile.

If we do this then we will soon see that a better connected species is a wonderful thing for co-operation and cultural evolution. I can find out whether a politician has lied, watch footage of a 70 year old man seeing in colour for the first time in his life, and help fund a well in Equatorial Guinea all from my bed. And as information travels faster evolution accelerates, and valuable ideas and new behaviours spread throughout the population like wildfire.

But then again so can pictures of Kim Kardashian’s bum.

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