China Daily by Ray Zhou
The paradox of having instant communication tools and constant connectivity lies in its subversive function of inserting distances between those near and dear.
A band of friends is celebrating a reunion with a grand luncheon. The food is piled high on the lazy Susan and the room is properly heated.
Yet the warmth of the occasion can be detected only by the two or three engaged in casual chat. Most of the others are buried deep in their iPhone or iPads, only occasionally lifting their heads to acknowledge their presence. One of them would take a photo of a newly arrived dish as if to establish a link between her online activity and her taking part in the event.
This is a scene taken for granted across China, especially among the young. It captures the irony of modern technology and its impact on human interaction. To be blunt, the ability to be always connected with the rest of the world has brought closer those who inhabit disparate spaces, but it has driven apart those who are physically together.
I’m not sure Steve Jobs envisioned this when he conceived these super-smart gadgets. But they are conversation killers. By that I mean face-to-face conversations, not virtual ones.
Of course it would be unfair to put all the blame on one person, dead or alive. All those apps are simply irresistible, and then there is weibo and WeChat. It’s no exaggeration that many cannot live without them. Data shows China has 281 million users of micro-blogging services and Tencent’s WeChat has surpassed them with some 500 million users.
It is difficult nowadays to go into hiding. Perhaps it’s less fashionable to be a recluse than to be a live broadcaster of one’s whereabouts, complete with photos and maps.
The addiction to new technologies did not start with this wave. When television first became widely available in China in the late 1970s, I remember a college class mate would watch anything on air – at a time when there was little worth watching. If he skipped an hour of TV he felt he had been cheated out of one hour of his life.
When the internet was a new thing, there was a joke that people would get up at midnight and press the refresh button to check if any new mail had arrived. Even junk mail could be a sight of comfort.
But that was before you could put the internet connection in your pocket and turn yourself into around-the-clock tower of live transmission.
Now, I’m no Luddite. I love progress in science and technology. There are so many things I can do that I could not possibly have done in the days of snail mail. I’ll tell you about the very first long-distance phone call I made in my life. It was in 1986 and I placed the call in a Beijing office early in the morning. By the time the operator congratulated me for getting through, which was in the late afternoon, I had forgotten about the call.
However, too much of a good thing can be a bad thing. With constant connectivity, some people have developed an urge to talk to all the people all the time, or it so seems. The sense of empowerment from this newly acquired capability is so high that some may have become delusional.
I know of people who own several widgets and have them turned to news sites simultaneously. They could be mistaken for news editors, but they are not. they are just news junkies who feel they have to know everything happening in the world – and as soon as the news comes out. They may have regular jobs that have nothing to do with the news. Judging from their torrent of comments and re tweets, I would weep for their employees.
Since most eye-catching news items are by nature bad news, it is only natural that one is overwhelmed by a sense of doom and gloom, which, if you take a step back, would shape one’s outlook of the world in apocalyptic terms.
I’ve noticed young people talking on their mobile phones when they definitely should not, such as when a job interviewer is asking them questions. It’s extremely unlikely that the phone conversation concerns a family emergency that calls more immediate attention than a prospective job does. But the subconscious sense of being needed by someone vague – someone on the other end of the line who could be much more important than the prospective employer – serves as a defense mechanism for possible failure at the job market.
With online communication, the display of split personality is so much easier and more common. There are those who exude affability and accessibility while using QQ or WeChat, but are intimidated by face-to-face encounters. The offline personality of awkwardness may not be a corollary of online eloquence, suaveness and humor, but it’s certainly a sharp contrast. Of all those who find their online avatars a relief, there could be a few whose disposition is exacerbated by this contrast and end up more afraid of the real world.
Sometimes I feel that those who use the internet to get one-night stands could be the normal ones.
Others may fall for virtual objects of affection a la Joaquin Phoenix’s role in Spike Jonze’s Her, a movie set in future Los Angeles but partly shot in Shanghai. A man going through a divorce buys a new operating system with not only a voice but personality. She is soothing, efficient and of course omniscient. Only when he discovers it’s not a monogamous relationship (she deals with thousands of such clients at the same time) does he get into a crisis.
At that point in the storyline, I thought there must be a way to customize the voice so she uses a different voice for each client. (Scarlett Johansson’s voice is nothing like Siri’s in the first place.) And why does she have to tell the truth? Aren’t machines of artificial intelligence equipped with the capacity for human conniving?
It may be far-fetched to imagine people having romantic affairs with computer programs (albeit with human voice and soon perhaps with human imagery and even human movements), but how do you know the true identity of the stranger you are flirting with online?
Most people have an intuitive grasp of the ever-renewing communication devices. Still, some seem to have a need for etiquettes lessons on when to shut them down. This reminds me of the concert goer or theater patron who goes through an entire show not looking up at the stage but down at the jarringly luminous screen in his or her hand.
Last year the number of micro blog users in China is said to have fallen by almost 10%, which could be a good sign. But perhaps they moved to the new platform of WeChat. Perhaps the smiley face will evolve into virtual handshakes and simulated hugs, reaching a stage where the physical world and an intelligent computer merge seamlessly into one.
Before we are able to send bots and visit our parents in our stead for the Lunar New Year, I suggest we put down our fancy gizmos and spend some quality time with family members.