If you enjoy annoying people as well as making life incredibly difficult for yourself, I suggest spending the first year of university without a mobile phone. Up until my second year, I was staunchly anti-tech and went without any mobile device or social media.
It wasn’t because I believed in some nefarious conspiracy in Silicon Valley, nor because I was technologically illiterate, but because it scared me that society was drifting into a configuration where the option of having a smartphone was becoming non-optional. It was frightening to think that one day there wouldn’t be any friendly High Street banks, just mobile banking. Or that you could no longer go on a road trip directed by a dog-eared road atlas because Google Maps put them out of business. Or that you couldn’t go into a pub with nothing but a crumpled fiver because table service apps became the norm.
These things aren’t bad per se, but it is concerning to imagine a world in which you need to carry an always-connected device in order to fully participate. However, it was always going to happen. My solution to this inevitability was to ignore the whole thing for as long as possible; a very minor form of resistance, but nevertheless satisfying.
While it was a mere inconvenience back in my sleepy hometown, at Exeter it became something of an aggravation. During Freshers’ week, I realised that I couldn’t wash my clothes because the laundrette didn’t accept coins, only app-payments. Once teaching commenced, I couldn’t use the digital check-in app, so had to field emails from seminar leaders. Social life was very difficult, of course. Any event or party worth going to was organised through social media or WhatsApp groups, and if I did hear of it by word-of-mouth, all the plans would have changed by the time I was knocking on the empty front door. Still, I put up with it until COVID-19 came, and the aggravation became an impossibility – I had to give in. So, I trudged to the nearest Carphone Warehouse and was cajoled by an overenthusiastic salesman to take out a contract smartphone.
The pandemic has conditioned the population to happily accept curbs on their civil liberties. We’ve willingly embraced laws that would be unthinkable in normal times: compulsory facemasks, restrictions on freedom of movement, the criminalisation of kissing. Two years ago, if a Prime Minister suggested it be made a legal requirement to give your name and number to buy a bagel, he would be laughed out of parliament. But fine. It is an unfortunate necessity that does in fact save lives, and we must jump through these hoops if we are ever to return to any semblance of normality.
A side-effect of this, though, is a host of not legal, but social customs that have become worryingly reliant on mobile technology. The convenience and hygiene of using mobile apps instead of their physical counterpart has led to an environment that excludes, or at least marginalises, those who do not want to use technology. The use of contactless payment instead of cash is the most obvious casualty, but a number of smaller things do add up: The NHS app serving as proof of vaccine; table service apps in pubs; PCR test results delivered digitally; click-and-collect shopping; reduced bank opening times; the track and trace app; digital, rather than physical, meetings. With most of these cases, there is an analogue alternative, but because so many simple, everyday tasks have been engineered to favour the digital option, being tech-free has become not just an inconvenience, but a significant disadvantage. Any complaint of this techno-centric state of affairs is always met with the same answer: it is to help reduce infection and save lives. An answer nearly impossible to argue against.
But so what? The pandemic has just accelerated what was going to happen anyway — the future is digital. 90% of 16–25-year-olds own a smartphone, and more than 99% of that age group use the internet. Many polls on internet privacy display public concern in tech giants like Facebook and Google, and yet, they’re becoming more popular by the day. Despite cyber warfare being a very real threat to British infrastructure, it is increasingly moving from analogue to digital. Four years ago, an alleged hacking group based in North Korea were accused of releasing a virus that cancelled 19,000 NHS appointments. More recently, over a hundred British schools were attacked by Ransomware, which rendered their networks useless until a demanded randsom was paid, although a South Gloucestershire Council spokesperson reported that, “we understand that no ransom has been paid.” Furthermore, despite the well-documented psychological toll of social media use, it is increasingly becoming the preferred means not just of communication, but of news and journalism (which has its own, potentially devastating political effects).
Solving these problems does not mean a return to the dark ages of quills and candlelight. Instead, there should be more scepticism of the value of these digital alternatives.
There will always be social sanctions to those who don’t follow the “norm”, and being anti-tech is one of the more minor considering the more pertinent issues of race, sex, and class. But when it comes to the institutions and public life more generally, it is worth being more suspicious of digital approaches that exclude, or make unreasonably difficult, the analogue option. Freedom of choice is one of the greatest things about living in a liberal democracy, and I would say that the choice not to subscribe to the technological revolution should be one that is protected. Likewise, with infrastructure: information written on a piece of paper will not disappear. Electricity, internet connection, and digital storage, on the other hand, does. It is a mistake, as the NHS among others have seen, to have entire systems reliant on this shaky structure—no one knows when the lights will go out. The whole of human history has managed until now with the analogue option, so perhaps we shouldn’t be too quick to throw it away.
– Fabian Carstairs
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