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From a cellphone angle in Vietnam: Is the future dead?

Thursday, November 19, 2015, 10:37 GMT+7

Funny how one thing always tends to lead to another – it’s called serendipity; ‘the happy art of finding things by accident’. The other week in class we were learning about technology expressions and I found a huge red antique dial phone from the 1960’s.

Tucked away between the fruit stalls and tacky hairdressers down a side road more jungle than road, the treasure was displayed as ‘bric-a-brac’ in a cozy combination antique and coffee shop. On entering, I yelled for the owner a few times without response. That was OK though, as it gave me time to browse without the typical ‘on your shoulder’ shop assistant breathing down your neck.

War relics, hardware, old pianos, an ancient TV and masses of fabulous old pottery were piled up everywhere. As I sat in an armchair waiting for the owner, the surroundings reminded me of my earlier lessons in class. The theme had been ‘Technology: does it make our life easier?’

Most of my class students replied that they thought it had definitely made life better because of the convenience of instant communication and entertainment. Yet when I asked them to recall a time when they had to go a week without their phones – almost everyone described it as ‘relaxing’!

Technology seems to me an ability to do things faster but not necessarily smarter.

My 14-year-old students can ‘tippy-tap’ text faster than I can write by hand yet still forget to put a capital letter at the beginning of a sentence and a full stop at the end. My adult students don’t chat much during our class breaks; everyone’s watching a viral video from Facebook Lite. Many younger students have no real research skills other than Google yet still think I won’t notice that they’ve plagiarized an English essay for our story-writing exercises.

We struggle with predictive text, viruses, slow downloads, bad translations and unresponsive webpages. We suffer anxiety if we mistakenly leave our phones at home. Vietnamese colleagues are uncontactable because they’ve run out of money on their phone card. So where’s the easy part?

People think it’s weird that I still use pencil and paper and carry a large notebook for a diary. Barring major disasters like the dog eating my notes or my housekeeper misplacing my lesson plans, paper still can’t be terrorized by viruses, bad memory reset warnings, and sudden changes in the margin settings. And turning a page is easier than scrolling endlessly up and down.

I won’t discuss business on the phone – the odds of confusion double without physical negotiations. You can’t make promises on a phone that beat a signature on a contract. I refuse to keep my phone on after 9:30 pm – if you couldn’t find the time to chat during the day, why should I allow you to disturb my night?

Modern communication allows people to drive me mad with micro-management; an obsession with small details and instructions. One of my adult students once complained that she wished she could run over her boss’s phone!

A lack of technology forces people to meet and talk and plan. More points of view can be included in the subject. Reducing communication to a handful of sentences delivered while riding a motorbike or haggling in the market becomes too much information not fully explained – and the annoying question and answer routine that follows.

Never mind that we have GPS now, I still have to swerve around truck drivers lost in Hoi An and out-of-towners using an unreliable Google map while whizzing past a signpost. It is a mystery to me how locals have the world online in a smartphone but still ride slower down a street, head tilting left and right, looking for the coffee shop where they agreed to meet.

Don’t answer that phone on the footpath while your baby is wobbling into the traffic. Better yet, destroy the phone so your girlfriend can’t call you ten times a day to check on you. Even better, buy the oldest Nokia you can find. They are indestructible, have no distracting games and no demands to update the latest something for something.

Perhaps someday in the future, I’ll sit in a little coffee shop surrounded by dead smartphones as we remember the ‘bad old days’ when our lives were completely controlled by machines as the population rides past on horses pulling wooden carts. We could marvel at the beautiful skyline once more now that there are no mobile phone towers. That’s right... we used to have that... ah, memories...

Oh, sorry, I was day-dreaming. Hang on... I’ve just got to answer this call...

Stivi Cooke


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