While listening to Sinica’s podcast on the Chinese artificial intelligence industry [I highly recommend listening to the podcast here], I was inspired to write about my own experiences with technology during my time in Beijing:
Every morning, after pouring a cup of water, I turn on my laptop and grab my phone to scan a unique QR code. The code allows me to access WeChat on the web and throughout the day I receive various messages regarding meeting times, article links, and new assignments. When I first visited China in 2012, WeChat was simply a social media app comparable to present day Facebook Messenger or WhatsApp. However, five years later, it has transformed into something much bigger than that. In addition to its social feed, WeChat allows you to pay for items at most stores, request a taxi through DIDI, and my favorite feature, recall messages. It is also an essential platform for companies like Mobike, China’s growing bike-sharing service.
As I previously mentioned, WeChat is a standard part of our firm culture. It is not only the preferred form of interoffice communication but many attorneys also use it to discuss cases with opposing council. The office strictly protects client confidentiality, but our reports and other articles are shared via file transfer in WeChat. In my opinion, WeChat, particularly for work, is very convenient. It is easy to access and saves messages for future reference. On the other hand, I do have some concerns. My major concern is that WeChat is both a private and professional platform. Personally, I do not accept co-workers on social media within our six months of working together. Not only do I wish to separate my work and private life but I also want information regarding my personal life to be shared on my terms and not under the mercy of family and friends who post on my wall. Thus, accepting colleagues on WeChat where they can see “Moments” I have shared with close family and friends is not really appealing.
Further, during my time here I have struggled to keep up with the various WeChat groups I am a party to. One afternoon, I made the mistake of sending a “Can’t talk, I’m at work” message intended for a family member to our entire Summer intern group. Fortunately, I was not discussing anything personal or inappropriate but I can see the train wreck of sending a very personal message to the wrong person or the right person in the wrong group chat. [As I mentioned before, my favorite feature is the recall of messages that allows you to delete a message within two minutes of it being sent. However, it is still possible for someone to read it before recall, and there is a very distinct message left in the group chat stating that you recalled.] Although both concerns are valid, the WeChat system is truly revolutionary. One of my coworkers stated that since returning to China, she has not touched cash in three weeks. It’s amazing that eventually “the wallet” will be outdated and all we will need to carry are our phones.
Facial Recognition Technology
While standing at the front desk in our hotel, I noticed my face on a screen and smiled. Initially, I believed the screen to be some form of security system, however, after watching another customer check-in, I realized I was mistaken. The customer came up to the screen, which captured her face, bringing up a passport like photo and other documents such as her driver’s license on the screen. The customer was excited at how fast she could check-in, I, on the other hand, was completely horrified. With the largest population in the world, it is beneficial for China to use technology as a form of convenience. However, I cannot even imagine all the privacy violations this form of technology would bring, beginning with the fact that I could read the screen with her personal information as well. To have a database of millions and millions of faces is both outstanding and petrifying.
Easily, Beijing has one of the most efficient transportation systems that I have experienced. Both buses and subways arrive frequently and the maps makes everywhere (even the suburbs) easy to navigate. Upon entering the subway station, we walk through security (something I didn’t experience in Shanghai in 2012). Also, generally, if you carry a plastic bottle with you, the subway officers will ask to take your bottle and scan it to see if it is safe. (I’m not sure when this practice officially began but I was not asked to give my bottle over until after a terrorist attack occurred in the UK.) My only issue with transportation here is the hours of operation. The subway system begins closing around 10 PM, which is inconvenient for taking night market trips and listening to jazz performances at East Shore. I have my theories about the early closures of the capital city but overall, transportation in Beijing is very convenient.
Cell Phone Culture
While on the subway, everyone is on their phones. Some people play video games, some watch dramas, and other read articles. (I’m sure if my phone was working properly, I would be on my phone as well. Cell phone culture is certainly a modernity concept and not a geographical one.) However, I do believe there is a different cell phone culture here in Beijing. My experience in the U.S. is that in certain venues (church, office meetings, etc.), it is polite to have your phone off or on silent/vibrate. In addition, if my phone were to go off, I would quickly turn it down and put it away. That is not what I have observed here. At church and meetings, you can hear chimes and chirps which inevitably lead to some saying “喂，你好”. I’m sure it happens, but I have yet to see someone fail to answer their phone.
I know my view of technology is very cynical. I think technological development is wise and convenient but I do look at technology with a cautionary eye. As mentioned in the podcast, this skepticism seems characteristic of Americans. Our television shows and movies all reflect a fear that technology will take over and attack us. However, in China, technological advancement seems welcomed and almost demanded. Many of my Chinese friends are proud that with the click of a button they can request a loan, order delivery, or procure a taxi. Besides how technology is used in China, it is also interesting to see what aspects of Chinese life has been developed. For instance, services jobs have been advanced by facial recognition and apps. However, when it rains, the flooding on the streets are very bad and elderly blue-collar workers use brooms, traditionally made of bundles of sticks, (I hope the brooms never changes since it very characteristic of China) to push the water into the drainage system. In the end, I think technology is helpful and it will be interesting to observe how technology will further impact this society. However, I also think it is interesting to see how we apply technology to our lives and understand what aspects of life we choose to revolutionize. China is an interesting blend of technological and economic development but social change and issues remain the same. Some of these social standards are strictly Chinese and others, I can only hope, may improve in the future. Just as ancient palaces stand next to new high rises, may we all grow and develop but never change.
High of the Week: I have formally joined the criminal group at Zhicheng and the work we are doing is so exciting.
Delta of the Week: I should be more open to technology and the advancements it brings.