First I want to caveat this as there is not any detailed research or analysis done on this topic other than my own observations over the past week while traveling in China. In fact, I am currently writing this while flying back to the US and probably won't spend a lot of time editing it or polishing it up. Just some random observations.
People are always worried about how connected they are and how much they are doing things on their phones or devices in the US. My wife and I are included in this as we try to model good behavior of device usage at home and try not to be too dependent on it so we can be present for our kids. However, using my phone as a camera I knowingly pull it out of my pocket quite a bit so I can snap a picture of the kids or a beautiful landscape. I always feel I could do better here but after traveling for the past week I have started to realize our problem might not be as bad as we all think it is.
I have spent the last week in China where I was both in Shanghai and Beijing. Below are a couple of observations I have noticed about device usage.
Walking in the Streets
While in China it didn’t stop me from running, even though my wife and mom thought I shouldn’t be out early in the morning running the streets of China. Not only from a safety perspective but air pollution as well. Don’t worry I am safely on a plane back to the US so all is well. On my first morning running, I noticed there was relatively no one out in the streets but it was bright enough outside to be 8 am back home. On that first day, 5 people almost walked right into me as they were deeply in thought of what was on their screen and facing down. Remember I was running and not being super stealthy trying to sneak up on anyone so they for sure had to have heard my feet hitting the brick pavement. You would think as that noise came closer to them they might consider looking up. However, not only did they not look up even when I was right next to them, they were just drifting along with their nose to the screen.
Eating lunch with my co-workers the first day I remember glancing around the restaurant and everyone at every other table had their phones out and looking down. I won't say we don't do that in the US but it seemed like a lot more than where I live. Now some of this could just be Shanghai is a bigger city than the Minneapolis area and if I lived in a downtown setting I might notice this more often. That might be some of it but I am not 100% sure that is the whole reason as I have done my fair share of traveling in the US as well.
Whereas people in the US keep trying to make conscious efforts to stay away from their phones, China seems to be doing the opposite. The restaurant I was talking about earlier where everyone was on their phone some of it made more sense as I traveled more. You see in China even though you go to a restaurant and sit down, most of the time you end up ordering from your phone (thinking face). Yep, you heard that right, the people sitting at the tables and planning on eating it there ALL order and ALL pay by their phone. I can see some benefits on the payment side of things as you don't have to worry about them taking your credit card or dealing with cash. Also, I would assume a receipt would be instantly on your phone if you needed it for your records or business purposes. However, this whole situation is just another way to keep people engaged on their phone and not put them down.
In talking with a colleague on a different night, she explained that now she doesn't even carry cash or bank cards but just always keeps her phone on her. It sounds like everything is almost done by phones for them and that could be a major reason everyone seemed to be looking down. If you are in the habit of using it all the time for everything then it just becomes so ingrained in your daily life that you probably don’t even think about not looking at it when you are with others or completely alone walking the streets. It is a mere lifeline at this point in their culture as everything is becoming connected (kind of sounds like the Feed in the Analog Series of books ?).
There could be some benefits here
Even though this all sounds bad, I actually can’t believe how far along they have come technology wise. My last visit to China was 4 years ago and I still remember watching most people pay by cash or credit/bank cards. However, this time almost everything is digital and I was for sure an outsider paying by cash and credit card. They had to dust off the machine in the corner and even then a handwritten receipt was given to me as they didn't have a printer around. This is because most people in China just got it on their phones.
Even when traveling in Germany last year I found it interesting that they bring the payment terminal to your table and you watch them run your credit card. Those payment terminals needed to be connected in some fashion so they didn’t have to walk my card back to the main terminal. However, what I was noticing in China would be taking it one more notch up. They merely had a QR code somewhere on the table that you could scan and send the payment to if you didn’t already order from the phone.
As much as I don’t want to be so tied to my phone as I truly like putting it down once in a while. I would welcome having more things go digital like payments and receipts. I too do not like carrying my wallet around with lots of other stuff in it if I can avoid it. I can see that more things will be done by phone which will also require a lot more focus and discipline for myself to make sure it doesn't become the norm of always being on my phone. I want to be present and in the moment with my kids and not always be looking down at my phone. I do welcome this challenge as I really can see benefits.
What do you think? Would having more things go digital be good or would you fear you would be tied even more to technology and it could bring bad habits along the way?