Deep in lockdown in London, it is curious to see how people, including myself, somehow see the smartphone as a ‘lifeline’ in various ways, from arranging daily life to keeping in contact socially. The global pandemic has recruited the global population to a forced social experiment of social isolation, and most had no choice but to experience daily life digitally. Having said so, even before COVID, my research participants back in Shanghai had been fully aware of the fact that the smartphone has long been an essential part of their daily life.
The title of this newly released video, ‘How can I live my life without you’, comes from an old popular love song in China. This expression is used by the lady in the video, one of my research participants, to describe the relationship between people and smartphones.
The film above is narrated by one of my research participants in Kyoto. Midori san (not her real name) is in her mid-sixties and chose to switch to a smartphone from her previous flip-style phone (garakei) last year when a big typhoon hit Japan. As she explains in this video, the smartphone provided a lifeline when she couldn’t access information at home as her electricity was cut off. For example, she could not find out if trains were running in order to check on her mother’s home in the neighbouring city of Osaka. At the same time as getting a smartphone she bought a portable charger so that in future emergencies she would not feel helpless, and she told me that many of her friends have done the same.
Japan regularly suffers from many natural disasters such as earthquakes, typhoons, and heavy rains. Midori san explained that she checks the weather every day on her smartphone during natural disasters and will not go outside, for example, if the temperature is too high during a heatwave. During my fieldwork in the summer of 2018, Kyoto was hit by a record-breaking heatwave: the temperature remained above 40 degrees Celsius for several days. Such extreme weather events can be dangerous, especially for older people.
The biggest disaster to hit Japan in recent years was the earthquake, tsunami, and subsequent meltdown at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant on the 11th March 2011 (the so-called ‘triple disaster’ of 3/11), in which roughly 20,000 people lost their lives. This event and the subsequent controversy over the way the government has handled the rebuilding and clean-up operations in the years since has left many of the people I met feeling that they cannot rely on the state to help them in times of trouble. Because of this sense of precarity and the worry that another big disaster is looming, the smartphone has become an invaluable source of comfort and support to people as a safety net in case of emergency.