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Saturday, December 18, 2010

The Cool Machine

 Soho at night
The Wan Chai district of Hong Kong is perhaps most famous as being the sleaze capital of the HK expat world, a hodgepodge of kabab shops, pubs and girly bars. There are also plenty of good, “clean” bars and restaurants there to make it a good night out with friends.  So it was that last night I made my way to a certain pub, walked in and sat down at the bar. On a small stage there was a talented Philippina band playing classics of western rock and pop, and I listed in appreciation as I waited for my friends. I was really enjoying the music, when a local Hong Kong man, perhaps my age, sat down beside me at the bar. He ordered a drink and then did what so many men do here in Hong Kong as soon as they sit anywhere. Those familiar with Hong Kong can probably work out what it was.

He pulled out a fancy i-phone-like device and became completely absorbed in it, ignoring everything around him. As far as I can recall, he did not look up once from the device in the 20 minutes or so I sat beside him. Then my friends arrived, and we moved away to a table nearby. We chatted over a drink for 30 minutes or so, then made a decision to move on. As I left I looked over and saw the same local chap at the bar. He was still there, completely absorbed in his device. I seriously doubt that he had listened to even one song the band had played, and he had certainly not talked to anyone.

One of my friends had been told about a certain groovy place across the way, and so it was that I found myself being whisked away by taxi to a quaint little jazz bar in the Soho area of Hong Kong. Soho is cool. Situated just a kilometer or so from the towering high-rises of Central, Soho is very hip and very, very hilly; its short, narrow streets are crammed together below old low-rise buildings. It’s a wonderful and workable mixture of the old Hong Kong and the new. The tiny streets are chock full of restaurants and bars. At night the clientele is mainly twenty and thirty-something expats and local Chinese Hong Kongers.

The street I was taken to was no place for cars – far too steep for that. Instead we climbed some very steep steps, and, after a little confusion, finally made our way down a dimly lit alley.

And there it was: the jazz bar. It would, of course, be great if I could remember the name of the place, but alas, as I was hustled into the tiny bar, I failed to take note. Perhaps it was the two drinks I’d had at the previous place.

Inside comprised a single squat room with a five metre high ceiling, the whole place no more than ten metres by six. A “second” floor had been artificially created by erecting a staircase and a flimsy looking podium above everything. We walked up to the second “floor”, and peered out over the edge to witness the cramped scene below. The platform left only about five and a half feet between the boards at my feet and the white ceiling above. I had to crouch and bend over, because my head was banging against the roof.

That’s Hong Kong for you.

Below, I could see that there were about 30 people crowded  into the room. There was a wine bar pushed into a corner, and customers were filling up their glasses at regular intervals. All eyes though, were focused on the centre of the room, where three guys were jamming some jazz: two guitar players and, rather bizarely, a guy fingering a clarinet. There was an old guy sitting there with them who looked about as healthy as David Cardine in his last days, but I am not quite sure what his job was. The vocals were supplied by some people standing round them. It was unclear whether they were part of the “band”, or whether they were just chiming in. It was that kind of place. Laid back, cool, and very hip. So Soho.

The lighting was slightly dim, which was why something else became very clear from my God-like position, hovering  above the crowd. Every 30 seconds or so, there was a flicker from a screen as someone extracted a mobile or i-device from a pocket. One guy below me, a gruff chap in his mid-thirties, kept  pulling his device out of a breast pocket every couple of minutes. I noted several others doing the same thing. I wondered what was so important that the machine had to be carefully examined so often.

A little later someone made a request for a song I’d never heard of, but they didn’t have the lyrics. A friendly customer stepped forward  with his i-contraption, and “wah-la!”, the singers were crooning along, following the words on the little screen.

The main singer was a local Chinese woman of about 45, who had a lovely voice. She did a soulful version of “Somewhere over the Rainbow” with the band. There was one thing about that performance which struck me as being even more profound than her voice. The song has a short musical interlude somewhere in the middle, lasting 30 seconds or so, featuring instrumentation but no vocalisation. When that short break came she whipped out her mobile and began scanning for messages. When her queue came, she dropped her mobile-full hand and started singing again.

Absorbed by her behavior, I watched her carefully for a while. She made no attempt to actually communicate with any of the people crowded in next to her, nor did she make any eye contact. She sang, and referenced her phone every few minutes. That was it.

Even the David Caradine clone was in on the act. As he sat inexplicably, feebly at room centre, he clutched a mobile device in a hand, which he raised at short intervals to inspect.

I was struck by the significance of what I was seeing. Here we were, a group of intelligent and articulate human beings gathered in a crowded space enjoying a bit of “soul”, and the preferred medium of communication for many - the desired instrument of engagement in reality - was the mobile devices in their hands.

This it seems is what modern society is fast becoming, at least here in Hong Kong. The attention span of typical citizens appears to have collapsed to the point that they have lost much of the capacity to derive joy from the present moment, even in environments where there is more than enough soul-fulfilling stimuli to satisfy the heart.

We are starting to lose connection with the world, the body, and the spirit.

In his book The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to our Brains, Nicholas Carr has gathered together an impressive array of research which details the way that the internet is changing the way we think, feel, and know. While visual-spatial intelligence and abstract reason are on the improve, there is much evidence that there has been a retardation in ability to comprehend the written word, in mathematical ability, in the capacity to sustain attention, to reflect deeply. Few people are reading books, and academics are reporting that they can now no longer sustain the concentration to complete academic articles. The average time spent on a web page is, I believe, fifteen seconds.

In short, the capacity for wisdom or to find meaning is being usurped by the desire for short, sharp bursts of stimuli.

My experience here in Hong Kong leads m to believe that Nicholas Carr is correct.
Deep engagement with the world is being replaced by… the quick scan.

 Is there a word to describe a disembodied information scanner? Yes there is: robot.

The irony of course is that I am writing this on a computer and linked to the net, while sitting outside a coffee shop by the sea in beautiful Discovery Bay, Lantau Island, just off Hong Kong Island. You too are reading this from the internet, and you almost certainly never would read it if not for the machine before you.

There are wonderful benefits from the internet and media, but we have to develop the self-discipline to know when to turn off. We have to recognise when the machine is taking away our power, our lives. Here in Hong Kong at least, many have given their power away to the machine, and appear to have no awareness of the long-term effects.


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