The night before I stopped using my mobile phone forever, I found myself trapped on the top floor of an office rumoured to have been the torture chambers of Japanese soldiers during World War II. It was my last day at work, and as last days so often go, I worked till the very end, until I found myself quite alone in this large, empty building, packing frantically as the seconds crept towards midnight.
I had surrendered my security pass earlier that evening, and the ops guy had gone home to his Wii and a deep-fried dinner. I stayed behind to pack while my soon to be ex-colleagues wandered off to carouse at the office Christmas party. Condemned to my lonely night of packing, I borrowed a colleague’s security pass to get in and out of the office. I would leave it on her desk before I left, I told her.
I was almost all set to leave at half past nine, when I decided to wander out for a drink of water. Leaving my worldly possessions behind me (which at that time consisted of my bag, phone and wallet), and clutching my colleague’s precious security pass, I blithely stepped out through the glass doors of the office. When I returned to the inner sanctum of the office, I produced the magic pass and tapped it confidently on the security device fixed to the wall.
“Enter PIN,” the machine informed me in hard, cold letters.
Of course, it was after 7pm. A vague premonition hit me then. Perhaps the office’s ghostly inhabitants played a part.
I keyed in the default PIN which I had almost forgotten, since I rarely stepped into the office after 7pm.
“Wrong PIN,” the machine hooted.
I keyed in the default PIN again, more slowly this time, in case my anxiety to be restored to my worldly possessions had caused my fingers to slip over a number the last time.
“Wrong PIN,” the machine persisted.
My colleague had evidently changed her PIN, and failed to inform me about it. I contemplated the situation. No phone, so I couldn’t call her to demand her elusive string of four numbers (and that was assuming she hadn’t switched off her phone for the night). No car keys so I couldn’t just drive home and come back for my things the next day. No wallet so I couldn’t take a cab or a train either.
There was however a large shiny Mac sitting outside the accursed glass doors. A Mac with an internet connection. There was also a good old land line at the receptionist’s desk, antiquated but dependable.
It was at that moment when several things hit me. First, that mobile phones are best for emergencies, but they aren’t of much use when they are separated from you by a 5-inch thick double glass door armed with alarms. Second, that it is convenient to store a phone number in your SIM card, but the safest place to store a phone number is in your head. And finally, that I would need to find an alternative solution to being reunited with my possessions, since I did not have the benefit of calling my colleague on my mobile.
The conclusion to the drama of that Last Night of Mobile Phone Ownership was that I managed to track down my deputy CEO through email (he had just happened to drop me a farewell note to my personal account, all the way from San Francisco, where he was holidaying). I replied immediately to ask if he had my director’s number on him. He did, and he emailed it to me, across multiple time zones and continents. From there, it was easy enough to track down the colleague, and to be reunited with my possessions.
Having achieved all this without the benefit of a mobile phone on me, I decided to enter the wilderness of phonelessness the next day, and have never looked back since. That was six years ago.
Of course, what happened that fateful night was not the only precipitating event that led me to get rid of my phone. There were other pragmatic reasons: I was going off on a sabbatical to write a book, and I did not wish to be disturbed. I was also concerned about the electromagnetic radiation emanating from that simple piece of metal and plastic. And more philosophically, I did not want to be ruled by technology, the way so many people were. After all, we communicated just fine in the last few millennia, without the aid of mobile devices. Why would I suddenly need one now just because we’re living in the 21st century? Did I really need to be contactable at all times? And was a phone actually making my life easier, or was it adding more layers of noise to an already crowded world?
Troy Chin, the celebrated comic artist and creator of The Resident Tourist, agrees. Like me, he belongs to the merry band of social outcasts who do without mobiles. He maintains that he is not a Luddite, but feels that many have “become complacent because of the existence of such commodified conveniences,” dangerously depending on their phones for everything from bus numbers to the prices of groceries. For him, the irony is that technology “is supposed to make us more connected”, yet, we are just as likely to meet someone who “retracts their idle gazes to their little screens” instead of maintaining eye contact, as we are to see couples playing Candy Crush or Angry Birds while sitting next to each other.
Even as mobile and internet penetration and smartphone ownership in Singapore reach incredible heights of about 149.8% (Mobile Monday, AC Nielsen) and 88% (Black Box), there are also an increasing number of people now who opt for a basic, data-free plan, or even settle for the relative restraint of a top-up card. Woo Wei-Ling, an editorial assistant at a local publishing company, falls into the latter camp. A top-up card works for her as she does not use her phone often. Like Troy, she is no Luddite. In fact, she likes technology, reads WIRED and often wishes she had majored in computer science. With a profile like that, you would expect her to be hermetically glued to a smartphone throughout the day. Instead, she prefers to read a book or have a face-to-face talk when she is on the MRT or at home. The last thing she wants to do after spending the whole day staring at a screen is to stare at yet another little screen.
A cursory weekend observation of people in shopping malls has convinced me that mobile devices are a far cry from being the enablers and bridges of communication, as the mobile phone makers proclaim. Instead, they have the potential to drive wedges in communication, alienating human relationships between the closest of kin.
On a trip to a restaurant recently, I observed a family come in for Sunday brunch, still yawning. They huddled mournfully around the table next to ours, avoiding eye contact with each other. They were an ordinary enough family: a respectably balding, bespectacled father, a mother with permed hair, two lumpy children. I expected that they would break into a joyous cacophony of conversation once they were seated.
But no, in that regard, they disappointed me. Instead, they each took out a mobile device of their own, and proceeded to stare intently at their little screens, tapping away throughout the meal like rabid miners attacking a deposit of gold. Not even when the food came, fragrant stacks of French toast dripping with honey, could they bear to tear themselves away from their screens.
Unfortunately, the tech-addicted family has become a common phenomenon, not just in Singapore but around the world. When I was in Heathrow a year ago, I saw a couple at the next table holding hands. Their eyes locked for a full minute when their hands suddenly unclasped, as if an internal lovers’ alarm had gone off, and they both reached at once for their phones. They spent the next fifteen minutes tapping at their phones, ignoring each other sheepishly. I wondered who was more important: the person whose living, breathing presence they were sitting in, or the invisible person they were talking to, whose presence was reduced to a few dashes and lines on their phones.
I even know of some people who ignore their colleagues for the most part in person, but who are more than attentive if they communicate with them via WhatsApp or SMS. Perhaps it is the high of answering a message that does the trick—the feeling that we have checked off something on a psychological to-do list, even if the “task” just completed was trivial. Such reactive behaviour does not enable the creation of great work. It is symptomatic of corporate culture in general, that most office workers’ days are stuffed with a laundry list of trivial “busyness”, which isn’t actually productive busyness dedicated to the kind of deep, strategic thinking that fuels real growth and innovation. Such work demands that we cut ourselves off from technology if only for a few hours, but most corporate cultures would recoil at the thought of their employees not being on-call whenever, wherever. In any case, it is uncertain how many people still have the attention span to focus on a challenging task for a stretch of time, without once checking their email or text messages.
Mobile devices are not completely alienating though. Besides being useful in emergencies and being a convenient platform for the transmission of bits and bobs of information (quality of which notwithstanding), I have recently discovered the benefits of FaceTime, which allows me to watch my two-year-old nephew grow up in Bali, from the comforts of my room in Singapore. Our conversations always end with a kissing ritual. “Goodbye Viktor, let us give you a kiss,” my mother and I say. Thus cued, my nephew will offer his fat cheeks to the camera, and always seems surprised when no physical kiss is forthcoming, only the strange sucking sounds of a mimed kiss over two thousand miles. When we ask him to give us a kiss, he gamely kisses the glass screen, and appears satisfied. At this point, I desperately wish that I could claw through that glass screen and emerge in his bedroom, just so that he can feel the warmth of real human skin under his lips, just so that he will know that his aunt and his grandmother are not a two-dimensional piece of cold glass.
Welcome to the paradoxical age of the mobile device, where our means of communication have proliferated at the bewildering speed of technology, while our capacity to communicate with each other seems, at times, to have collapsed in on itself. This is the elephant in the room—not how often and how quickly we communicate, but how well we communicate and connect with each other.
As for me, give me a deep and meaningful chat with a friend over a cuppa, uninterrupted by technology, and a flesh and blood child whose fat cheeks I can plant kisses on, separated by the membrane of skin rather than metal.