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Monday, April 15, 2019, 10:59
Time to take a harder look at our relationships with smartphones
By Li Yao
Monday, April 15, 2019, 10:59 By Li Yao

It intrigues me to find myself resisting the idea of replacing my phone, which after four years, has become slow.

Why not opt for a new model, with better batteries and faster speed? 

The disruption to smartphone-enabled work life is one major concern. So much work is conducted online now, mostly via a smartphone. What if I can’t log in to the usual office tools — email, messaging apps — after downloading them on a new phone? Being out of reach for days is unthinkable in the newsroom. The anxiety may be comparable to the state we are in when our ID cards or bank cards are lost. 

There is a stronger antidote to the allure of a new phone. My phone stores so much personal details. This saves me time to run errands with just a few clicks: Paying bills, transferring money and making purchases. I entrust it to carry sensitive information, to handle banking services and personal biometrical authentication. And the input of such data to the phone was a nuisance in the first place. Repeating it with a new phone isn’t a happy thought.

This exercise of comparing the pros and cons leads me to think carefully about the relationship of people with their phones in general. What makes us so dependent on the smartphone? An obvious answer is it is so useful that we always need it.

What more is at work? For a new phone to become loaded with files and private data is a process of user-phone synchronization. We install apps and programs and instruct the phone to perform tasks. We get used to the phone’s accumulative functions we have chosen. And the phone compiles our personal data. 

In time, our phone becomes individualized. It has rich enough data to generate a detailed profile of us. Its revealing power of our true self and sensitive data is staggering. This gives rise to our attachment to the phone, like a long-time pal who knows all our deepest secrets.

Underneath this attachment, there is a slight fear that my phone can be used against me. We have easily suppressed such fears each time we agree to the terms and conditions of every app, asking for access to our photos, real-time location, and all kinds of data. 

We would normally flee from people raising these intrusive requests. But when they come from a phone, we habitually coax ourselves to numb our instinct to detect potential risks, and let the mobile programs get their way. 

We allow tech companies to study and profile us for commercial gains, by voluntarily feeding them personal data, mostly via our smartphone. A byproduct is a phone carrying so much personal data that we become hardwired to feel secure only with our phone by our side. 

The result is known to all: Google, Facebook and their likes know more about us than we want them to.

Many people are beginning to have second thoughts about this. Some regulators are contemplating data laws to give consumers a greater say in how their personal data is used. Advocates call for protecting people’s rights to be forgotten. 

The 2016, Italian film Perfect Strangers was adapted into a French recreation, Le Jeu (Nothing to Hide), and a Chinese one, Kill Mobile, in 2018. The story puts a group of friends including couples to the test, by playing a game in which they take out their smartphones and read every new message and notification out loud and take calls at the presence of all game participants. The game, exposing one secret after another, quickly turned from being funny to embarrassment, hurt, heartbreak and shock.

The same story re-adapted in different countries and languages shows that examining the relationship between people and their phones is of universal interest today. People everywhere are experiencing the same phenomenon: Phones take up a large part of people’s lives. How does our dependence on the smartphone condition the way we conduct ourselves and interact with others? 

So much human activity revolves around these phones, and so much creativity and attention is invested in them. As we seem to grow ever more inseparable from our phones, more scrutiny of our relationships with them will become necessary, to educate ourselves to confront the trade-offs and potential risks, and to become smarter consumers, too. 

The author is assitant to editor in chief for China Daily Hong Kong.

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