I was on a bus in Barcelona last week with a colleague I had not seen in years. As we chatted, I got a phone notification of a tweet of hers. We were both rather shocked. It could be coincidence, but it seemed likely that Twitter had tracked that we were close by and travelling the same route.
We happened to be on our way to the announcement of a 5G smartphone by China’s Xiaomi. With hundreds of seemingly genuine Xiaomi fans — who knew there was such a thing? — whooping and clapping as if it was an Apple event.
The promise of 5G, for which Qualcomm makes chips, is of faster, more pervasive networks to more reliably perform such tricks as noticing you are on the same bus as someone you know. The Mobile World Congress, of which the Xiaomi event was part, was largely a celebration of 5G, which will start to go live this year.
Cristiano Amon, the president of Qualcomm, took the stage under the slogan “5G will enrich lives”. He told the audience, “I want to present a new concept — unlimited connectivity with the cloud . . . 5G will enable the user to be connected 100 per cent of the time.”
Fresh from the rather creepy notification incident on the bus, and in an era when we are becoming ever more troubled about tech’s effects on privacy and mental health, I imagined the Qualcomm promise would ring a little hollow. But there was no mass intake of breath.
And I am sure the Chinese government, which appears ever less troubled by tech’s impact on privacy and health, is thrilled about 5G, and Xiaomi’s achievement in bringing a budget — well, £520 — 5G phone to market. What is there not to love about knowing 100 per cent of the time where citizens are and who they are with?
Yet my takeaway from Barcelona was that there is a small but growing resistance to the total surveillance potential which comes with the considerable pluses of 5G.
One such example of a refusenik tendency was to be found at the booth of Punkt, a Swiss company making upmarket, £295 “dumb phones”, which can pretty much only make calls and send texts. Their latest, says founder Petter Neby, has sold hundreds of thousands, with 38 per cent of buyers aged 25-34.
But what pleased Mr Neby most was the stream of telecoms analysts coming to his booth to learn more.
“They’re knocking on the door, Gartner, Canalys, IDC, CCS Insight, everyone,” Mr Neby said. “They’re all clear that this is happening, it’s real, and not just a cute little story.” Visitors to the Punkt stand were sent away with a hessian bag that read: “Is tech making us stupid?”
I went from Punkt to Intel, Qualcomm’s rival, to discuss the privacy and wellness concerns around the new networks with their 5G lead, Asha Keddy. She was broadly optimistic. “There’s a non-dystopian version where 5G helps the struggle for humanity to make the world a better place,” she said. “There’s always a race between whether a hammer is used to build houses or to kill people. It’s going to be the same in technology.”
But does she like the idea of being connected 24/7?
Her response was unexpected. “As you grow older, you start appreciating ancient wisdom,” she said. “So I would like to adopt the Jewish Shabbat, where you take a day off a week from all technology. I think it would be energising.” Ms Keddy’s proposed adoption of Shabbat is the more surprising partly in that she is a 5G evangelist, partly that she is a Hindu-raised atheist who has become a Christian.
Elsewhere in Barcelona, I found a Spanish Company, Mobile Free Life, with a stand offering courses to companies on using phones less. They promote a “global mobile free day” on April 15.
How many observed last year’s mobile-free day, I asked their founder, psychologist Joan Amorós Martínez? “We don’t know, they didn’t post about it because their phones were off.”
There is something in the air. People are looking up from their phones. And when they look down, some of them are even making old-style voice calls again.
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