What would I do if I woke up one day and found there were no more mobile phones?

Today I’ll post something that is a little bit off topic, since I intended this blog to focus on social issues in the Arab world or on Chinese (popular) culture, my favourite topics. But some two months ago I happened to read, on some blackboard at the Chinese university where I am currently working, that question:

What would I do if I woke up one day and found there were no more mobile phones?

As I am a smart phone user myself, often struggling to put it aside or turn it off although I have already wasted too much time with it, and — at the same time — as somebody who considers it a sad thing that many people play with their mobile phones instead of communicating with the people around them. I’ve seen this both in China and Germany, and a movie like Polanski’s “Carnage” indicates that the audience in quite a lot of different countries is ready to understand and laugh about the tragicomical scene in which a smartphone is thrown into a vase because its owner is using it excessively…

Smartphone Zombies (Photo: Edwin Lee, CC BY-ND 2.0)

I still remember the time when, at least in my country, mobile phones were something new and rare. First, they and their owners were something to make jokes about. Would-be businessmen and princes from the countryside, yeah, ha-ha, they needed a mobile phone to act important. Who else would need them, as everyone had a telephone at home and enough spare-time to be reached that way. People who were especially busy and always on the road had an answering machine connected to their line.
A few years later, the days of jokes on mobile phones were over. They were still quite rare, yet more and more often you would see people having one. It is for emergencies or special circumstances, when one needed to be able to respond quickly to something, so they said. That sounded reasonable, I admit.

Yet, there was a new phenomenon of how some people sat in public places, like on a university campus for instance. I still remember quite well, one day I was approaching the main entrance of the building when I saw someone from behind. My first guess was there’s somebody crying or in deep despair, because that is how I read his body language: bending all over, his head hanging down, and the hands somewhere in front of his chest; all turned inward without any trace of being open to the outside, no signs of looking at the world or expecting anything from it.
I took a few further steps and wondered if and how I should offer my help or at least a paper tissue so that he could wipe away the tears. But to my surprise, as I could now see him from the side, I found that this guy was just staring at his mobile phone’s display and was — at least in the way I was thinking first — in no need of help; in contrast to me, as I seemed to be a little out of time regarding the latest trends in communication technology.
Still, I found he looked weird. He was closed to the world like a fearful oyster, like someone who had no or lost his interest in the outside world — just like someone in great distress. Many years later, when mobile phones were as common as electric light (at least in those parts of the world that are better off), the Chinese coined a special term for people with a body-language like that person on the campus: 低头族, Ditouzu, i.e. the people with their heads hanging down. Ok, I admit: For them, it must be great fun. They can check important messages, see movies on a four inch screen or shoot bubbles. But for the people around, that looks pathetic. Those mobile users do not seem to expect anything exciting from their environment, and that is just why their heads are hanging down. No one sees the enchanting smile of somebody just entering the tube, for example. No one takes any notice of how funny the way is in which the little dog at the next station tries to steal a sausage. Just imagine, that boy or that girl smiling or the dog’s owner could be the love of your life — and you missed him or her because you were staring at a little square of liquid crystals.

Now, that is how sad it looks if people stop being open to the outside and, thus, to the people around them. Yet, I am afraid, that is not the only problem. The Ditouzu also close the doors of their minds to their own inside, that is: to the precious gift of boredom. Yes, I do think boredom is, or at least can be, something valuable.
I read about this idea in the German daily “taz” and I found it convincing and exciting: Actually, dealing with boredom is a skill and, if acquired well, a gift. In an environment that has nothing to offer, for example a bus stop in the middle of nowhere, where I have to spend the next forty minutes or so waiting for the bus, I will have to think about something. And due to the lack of stimulation from my surrounding (that might consist of just a dirty road and grey walls in the twilight of the evening), I will have to turn my attention to my insight. I might have a moment now to discover how (un-)happy I am with my partner, my work, my studies, and my life. I might discover that I want to go further on the road that I have chosen. I might also discover that I am fed up and want to take the next turn into another direction.
These some forty minutes are also a chance to reflect on the last days. I might sing a song long forgotten. I might also remember my dreams. In an environment like this, boredom can be like a breeze, carrying me into the air, elevating me from the existence of an ant always busy to that of a bird. I think, maybe it is this never ending alternation between the states of an ant and a bird, between spending our efforts and getting a bird’s-eye view of where we are actually going — maybe this perpetual alternation is a part of what makes us human.
And the smart phones? They are destroying boredom, nipping it in the bud. If I have a smart phone at hand at that bus station mentioned above, it is very likely that I’ll take it out as soon as I find myself being bored. I will check my mails, play a bubble-shooting game or I’ll surf the internet for something useful or entertaining. Although I might not be amusing myself to death, boredom died.

Dear reader, please do not get me wrong. The author of these lines owns a smart phone himself, and he does not want to go back to the stone ages. Modern communication devices can be very useful. Imagine an isolated village in a desert country, where the last well is about to get dry and where the next town is some hundred miles away. Wouldn’t it be wonderful, if those villagers had a device like that, for instance a satellite phone, to set off an emergency call for help?
Besides, modern communication technology helps us to be connected to the whole world. In the blink of an eye information from far away-places are available. Globally looking for best-practice solutions to local problems, in an effort to make this world a better place, is a dream so close to come true in our age, thanks to modern communication technology.
Yes, for those purposes I strongly advocate the use of modern communication devices, including smart phones. But sealing ourselves off from both the outside and from the inside world by abusing this technology in our everyday lives is just a kind of digital misery.
So, what would I do if I woke up one day and found there were no more mobile phones? The answer is, I would be glad about the revival of both real-life communication and boredom. At the same time, I’d wish that the vision of a global village is still alive, where distance does not matter anymore, when people want to cry for help or just like to exchange ideas in order to improve our lives.

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