• Caught with my tech down

    (Photo by Patrick Kool)

    For my friends and I – being English – the most exciting thing about Malmö, Sweden is the kallbadhus – a bathhouse on stilts over the sea where it’s against the law not to be nude.

    The idea that a public space is frequented in the buff – as per regulations – by ordinary Swedes without a ‘by your leave’ is the stuff of English fantasy and scandal. And yet, it’s not the biggest deal about the place. 

    No phone to preserve my modesty

    Having become a regular to the kallbadhus over the past year, I have long since got over the initial transgressive thrill of being nude in public. I’ve quickly become at ease with the murmured chat of portly businessmen on their hour off. 

    What I have come to savour is not so much the nudity (which is nice), but the calm. Aside from nudity, another sauna rule at the kallbadhus is minimal noise. It is a place of quiet reflection. 

    It is also a place of intense heat and moist bodies. It’s not easy to take a locker key in without it burning you, let alone an iPhone. Which is perhaps one reason why no one does. The kallbadhus is not only a clothes-free zone, but a tech-free zone. 

    An island of gazing faces

    This makes the kallbadhus something truly unique in today’s world: a public space in which no technology intrudes. Even my beloved English pub is now a place of smartphones and TVs. But not here. 

    At the kallbadhus, a large group of strangers congregate to sit, side-by-side, in relative silence and stare out of the windows at the rocks, the sea and the sky. There’s nothing else to do. 

    When the event of the last half an hour is the seagull that passed the window, or the oil tanker making its steady progress across the screen of the horizon line, the mind feels something a bit like what childhood was to me – a time before the internet. 

    The kallbadhus is a little accident. An anachronism. It’s not a techlash. I don’t think anyone planned it. But by chance, it is the place where I can go to be in another place, where only your thoughts roam, and boredom lurks quietly. 

    While we’re on the subject of how great saunas are, Being Nude Isn’t Rude

  • Are you a smartphone addict?

    The perfect smartphone burial pit

    Our household is having the zeitgeist conversation of the moment: how to manage smartphone addiction. 

    Then I got a lesson as if sent from heaven. My phone simply went missing. Was it a sign? Turns out it was, in a way. 

    iPhone found in pit

    I don’t know why I even looked, but as I took away the carefully constructed pile of planks and sticks that cover my son’s excavation hole in the garden, under the final layer I struck treasure – the back of my iPhone case nestled in the soil. 

    The frenzied search had lasted some time. I pieced together my movements like a detective at a crime scene. Finally I remembered. I had been standing in the garden while my son was playing…

    …browsing the BBC News app. Was it more important to know about the Australian elections than what my own son was doing in our back garden? Apparently. 

    His response had been to take it when my back was turned and bury it. 

    Smartphone containment

    No one seriously entertains the idea that mere mortals can ‘do an Ed Sheeran’ and simply get rid of it. We don’t have an army of Personal Assistants, armed with their own smartphones, to manage our lives for us. 

    But for all the necessity, most of our smartphone use is utterly luxurious – none of it has to happen, probably not for as long as it does, and we all know the apps are designed to keep us thumbing and scrolling. 

    You’re all caught up!

    Yes, I know. Apps like Instagram have fallen on their sword and started to tell us when we’ve literally seen every image in our feed once already and can probably switch it off. But it sure feels good to know it’s all done. I’m up to date!

    The next challenge for tech is to see if it can find a place in actually freeing us to live our lives alongside it. TV always had trouble with that – but TV couldn’t move with us, which limited its power. 

    Our pocket rockets have to find a long-term way of making us feel better. If they ultimately get in the way of real life, they’ll just be switched off.

    Or buried.

    Turns out kids can even teach us about words (shouldn’t that be the other way around?). Read my blog Lost and Found Words

  • The bums lost, Lebowski

    Desktop computer screen on an office desk in a dark room
    Time for work (Photo by Josh Sorenson)

    In mid-April, Jack Ma – founder of Alibaba – praised the 996 system. 996 means working 9am till 9pm, 6 days a week. In Shenzhen, China’s tech boomtown near Hong Kong and Alibaba’s home, that’s normal. 

    Workin’ 996…

    I was in Shenzhen in January. I spoke to a successful innovator in the tech industry. Like many in this city, he’s an incomer from the Chinese interior. He spoke to me about the reality of the working culture in Shenzhen. 

    “We sacrifice our youth and our health” 

    He told me he was exhausted. He almost never took a holiday and could count the days he hadn’t been to work that year on one hand. “We sacrifice our youth and our health to get a certain comfort,” he explained, before adding: “Collectively, we have made China stronger.”  

    He reached for President Xi Jinping’s little red book and insisted that all that hard work was for a greater good than simply his own. It echoes Jack Ma’s observation about the ‘996 system’ being a “blessing” without which China would “very likely lose vitality and impetus”. 

    Oliver Twist or what?

    It feels reminiscent of Victorian Britain, where such a work culture was for the betterment not only of the individual, but the British Empire. It’s also perhaps the root of the American commitment to a work culture that permits only two weeks’ holiday a year. 

    “The number of slackers has rapidly grown”

    Richard Liu of ecommerce company concurs. He believes Chinese growth has enlarged the pool of slackers, and that the market will punish Chinese firms. The trouble is, China wants to become a leader in innovation and ideas. These are things people create when they pause, think and perhaps live a little. 

    Industrialisation requires drone workers. But at some stage in the process of no longer being poor, hungry and sick, people are wont to ask: what’s the point? 

    As answers go, ‘To make your country more powerful’ just doesn’t get most people up in the morning. 

    996? Make them work 24/7 if you want, but there’s a ceiling on what you’ll get out of them until you start offering more human answers. 

    Never mind work, what’s school good for?

  • When Baldrick met a QR code in China

    A QR code on a restaurant table
    What is this strange plastic card stuck to the table?

    Unbeknownst to me (I don’t get out much and the only news item I have seen since 2016 is Brexit), the Chinese have quietly departed for the future. I went there last week. I wasn’t expecting to time travel, so it was a shock. 

    The quiet QR revolution

    QR codes now rule. You know, the little pixelated black and white squares you point your smartphone at. Yes, we’ve all (most of us) done it, but not like the Chinese. 

    And yes, I know there are Londoners for whom Apple Pay is now old hat. But I’m living in the Welsh borders, and out here, not a single sheep has a QR code on it. In Shenzhen – China’s shiny new metropolis – everything has a QR code on it. I mean everything. 

    Do you accept farthings?

    I disembarked at the Chinese border armed with a fistful of renminbi. I met two guys from Beijing whom I’d be spending the week with in Shenzhen. They looked at my fistful of notes with misty-eyed nostalgia. 

    “I don’t think I’ve taken my wallet out for about three years,” said one. The other showed me a stash of notes he said he never touched. This revelation occurred as we sat in a café to order lunch and I spotted the QR code stuck to the table. 

    “What’s with the QR code?”
    “Oh, we’re ordering lunch.”
    “With a QR code?”
    “It’s bringing up the menu on my phone. I’m then ordering us lunch with my phone, and at the end of the meal, I’ll pay the bill by phone.”

    I nodded, feeling like Baldrick in Silicon Valley. 

    You don’t have to be a hipster to zap it

    What threw me the most was that this wasn’t a smart restaurant. It was just a normal café. But I was only just starting to get up to speed. It was soon revealed to me that everyone used QR codes. 

    They were in ANY food outlet. They were in shops. They were on parking machines. When my friends told me that even market traders and street food vendors used them, I realised just how much catching up the UK needed to do. 

    “So what’s with this Brexit thing you’ve been doing?” 

    I knew the question might come up eventually. I was dreading it. Yes, we’ve been bickering about our own importance for two years. Yes, I can see you’ve been busy while we’ve bickered. Yes, it’s a bit embarrassing. 

    The Great Chinese Firewall knocked out most of my American apps while I was there. I used the WeChat app, a great platform through which WeChat Pay is one of the top two payment systems, alongside Alibaba’s Alipay.