I do things with words, mainly English and Arabic
One of the few irritations of an absolutely amazing two years on Edinburgh University’s Arab World Studies MSc has been the background pressure to get a smartphone. Or an iPad. Or some other piece of (preferably heavily branded) over-hyped technology.
There is a certain irony to this, as I probably use IT more effectively than my smartphone-owning classmates (and, indeed, teachers). I have this blog, and guest blog for other sites with global reaches; I have a Twitter feed with a good RT rating and a respectable number of followers; I run reasonably effective Facebook pages for two of my books.
So I’m not technologically illiterate, and I’m not an anarcho-primitivist. But I don’t buy tech tat, and I don’t get excited about every new Apple product that hits the market. Interestingly, some of the people who do seem to spend a lot of time using technology ineffectively – setting up FB groups and Twitter accounts which they then fail to use properly and which therefore have no impact. In the end, despite the glitz, IT is just bits of metal and plastic, and if you don’t use it properly it’s nothing more than expensive bric-a-brac.
Partly not getting one is a matter of simple practicality. I can’t afford expensive phones and tablets, and I don’t like the feeling of carrying round an expensive object that risks getting broken or nicked. So I don’t. But there are also some bigger, more important reasons which I don’t buy (into) that stuff.
One: pretty much by definition, the more a device does, the more energy it consumes. Better energy efficiency may mean that this isn’t a straight-line increase, but it still applies to at least some extent, hence headlines about how a smartphone often uses as much energy as a fridge. I’ve heard a lot of smartphone owners commenting/complaining that their devices need to be recharged daily, whereas my elderly mobile can hold out for several days at a time of texting and occasional calls before it needs charging up. And it’s not just a matter of expense. In case you haven’t noticed, there are issues like peak oil and climate change related to our energy consumption. Does the ability to play games and check emails on the bus/in the back row of lectures really warrant the additional energy use?
Two: name me an electronics brand whose products aren’t made in disgusting sweatshops in China and other ‘developing’ countries, where people work long hours for shit pay in dangerous conditions. Where some are even driven to suicide. Where some of those workers are children. Is your ability to waste your time on yet another gadget really worth that measure of human pain. Really?
Three: the world is getting very exercised about the war in Syria right now, which is as it should be. But when did we last hear anything about the situation in the Democratic Republic of Congo? The death toll in Syria is perhaps 100,000, which is appalling. But something like 6 MILLION have died in Congo in the last decade, and one of the main drivers of that conflict is the quest for the rare metals needed to produce miniaturised electronics – like smartphones and iPads. So, there’s another way in which your gadget increases the overall sum of human misery. And if the rare metals don’t come from Congo, perhaps they come from Malaysia or Brazil, where scientists have warned of the rising dangers of toxic and radioactive waste coming from processing plants.
Four: what kind of horrible culture do we live in where everyone is expected to be available, online, all the time? The last thing I want is a phone that follows me with email and news headlines and Twitter and Facebook. When is a person supposed to think, to contemplate, to notice and experience the world and other human beings? It’s been driving me nuts for years when a meet a friend for lunch or a coffee and they whip out their phone, check every text and break off to take calls. It’s bad manners, and it implies an underlying disrespect for basic face-to-face communication. And it gets worse and worse as the stream of information available through mobile devices gets faster and fatter.
Five: so much of what happens on mobile devices is about consumption, not production or creation. My husband pointed this out to me when he acquired a tablet some months ago, but has found himself using it only rarely because he feels that it transforms him into a passive consumer, only able to interact or produce by using a cumbersome onscreen keyboard. The point was reinforced by a twitter exchange with an online friend who fancied a mini-iPad. I suggested (jokingly) a pad of paper and a pencil. He was surprised; he wouldn’t be writing anything on it.
True, you can buy keyboards for most tablets, but the fact that they have to be bought separately rather underlines that they are seen very much as a secondary aspect of the function. First and foremost, one is meant to use this device to consume, to be passive, to take on corporate messages and to absorb the modern version of ‘bread and circuses’, the time-wasting ‘opiates of the masses’ that keep us diverted from things that really matter.