I don’t use the cloud. Don’t trust it. Where is all my stuff?” asked a friend in her 30s when I was on a trip back to Europe. It struck me as sounding exactly like something someone at least twice her age might say about some aspect of our increasingly digital world. And then it occurred to me that it also sounded like something you wouldn’t hear anyone of any age say in China.
My friend uses technology every day in her job, but the concept of storing files in unknown servers around the world, available anywhere at any time (fingers crossed) was one step too far. I spoke to other friends around my age in Europe and it seems in our 30s we’re keeping up with tech we already use and its incremental updates, but have stopped bothering to embrace whole new types of technology.
Next stop? Alienation, mistrust and abandonment. As technological advances accelerate, are we going to become Luddites earlier in life than our parents and grandparents?
Probably not in China.
We all know that in China, tech firms are racing ahead in all sorts of areas. Blockchain and AI have been in the news for years and genetic engineering and the country’s space program landing a rover on the far side of the moon have made the headlines recently. But it’s at the everyday level where the changes are even more obvious.
Yes, you see the young most deeply engrossed in tech here, but spend a bit longer and you’ll see the rest of the population aren’t far behind.
A child in Beihai is as likely to grab for a parent’s smartphone as her peer in Berlin or Boston would, but in those cities, would her parents upload voice samples so an app can generate bedtime stories starring the child artificially narrated in the parents’ voices?
See a child with a chunky, colorful watch and wonder what cartoon character it is? Look a little closer – it’s likely to be a smartwatch providing tracking data for his parents. A location function alerts the child if he’s straying out of an area deemed safe by his parents. Comforting to both when parents often live in cities hundreds or even thousands of kilometers from their kids.
Spend time with a mainland millennial and you’ll see the full extent of technology’s spread through daily life. Every single aspect of life has an extra layer of technology, from paying for a dough twist for breakfast with the WeChat app to passing through facial recognition doors to get back into a university dorm.
Those starting out in their first jobs may be busy, out and about during the day, but many live with strangers or alone, and without the money to socialize, it’s typical for groups of friends to all watch the same show together then just message each other about it rather than being physically gathered. Loneliness is spreading.
But technology has some solutions, of sorts. I met an engineer who’d developed a robot dog specifically to accompany China’s lonely youth. It monitors their behavior and hurls abuse based on the idea that if you’re depressed, you don’t really want someone being cheerful and well-meaning. It can even give its owners an electric shock if they’re rude and may be able to take delivery of parcels or even alert emergency services if it suspects its owner is ill or too depressed.
Take a trip to a park in China. I’d bet money that in any park in China there’ll be a group of senior citizens limbering up on specially provided equipment or just walls and trees. But unlike older groups elsewhere, ask them to show what technology they’re packing. Out come smartphones, sleek and shiny. And they’re not just for the odd call or text message. Pensioners are sharing articles, shopping online and watching TV shows together.
I’ve been to classes where pensioners are learning how to use the latest features on their phones, how to be aware of scams and how to use technology to achieve more on their own without being burdens on their children. One class used tai chi as a way to attract the older tech brigade – a real crowd pleaser. Once they’d mastered video calling they were rewarded with a new fitness routine.
People are talking about new technologies more. They’re something to invest in, something to feel proud of. Everyone feels more involved in the developments going on around them and so everyone’s got an opinion. Far from being Luddites, people are looking forward to the next development.
But just sometimes, things go a little too far with virtual living. In the run up to the Spring Festival, turn on the radio if you still have one, and you’ll hear government announcements urging people to put the tech down and communicate face to face for once.