who “i” have become in an iPhone / WeChat world

My cellphone has changed me or rather it has changed how I experience myself, and this other me (the one that steps back and reflects on this experience) is coming to terms with someone I never imagined I would meet, let alone become. 

Mine is an iPhone 4s, and was given to me roughly five years ago just before WeChat took off. I remember the WeChat launch because I learned how to use WeChat at a gathering to celebrate my 48th birthday. Several of my friends had already downloaded the app and were busily sending pictures of the meal and birthday bouquets–over a dozen roses and lilies erupting out of a tightly bound stem.

A friend had gifted me Apple’s once-upon-a-time hot-new-thing because I had been using a Nokia flip. I texted. I called people. I answered phone calls with minimum screening. But I didn’t follow Weibo and I didn’t use my phone to get online, I didn’t use map apps to find my way or organize work and play in virtual groups. My online life didn’t follow me around because it was tucked away on my computer, which was on my desk.

Two days ago I realized just how reliant I have become on its proper functioning. My phone was held between ear and shoulder as I paid for a train ticket to Guangzhou, I jerked and the phone dropped, dislodging the thingy that connects that other thing that works the screen. You know what I mean. My phone still operated, I just couldn’t see what was happening because it was on black out. As a result I could only receive phone calls because I knew where the icon for answering the phone was.

Fortunately, about an hour after the phone drop, a friend called.  I slid my thumb in familiar rhythm across the black screen and…connected. She then contacted everyone I needed to contact and they began phoning in to set up meeting points and times. But I carried a strange nervousness. What would I do if my friends didn’t show about at the appointed time and place? How would I pay my bills? How would I arrange the next day’s activities? I had forgotten that less that five years ago, I waited for people to show up, I used cash or a credit card, and I carried a telephone book to call and confirm appointments.

One day and “I” had felt the underside of WeChat ease, viscerally. This seems to me an important point that often gets overlooked in conversations about what all this technology means for us. I knew how I was to be functioning in a WeChat governed world and what’s more, I knew how my friends and colleagues expected me to be functioning. The me I (and others) think I am has been recently redesigned, crafted out of a particular relationship to my cellphone and its virtual possibilities that did not exist five years ago. I hadn’t realized how deeply or how quickly this transformation had happened, but I could feel the absent app like a phantom limb; I became nervous and had to practice breathing in order to work through how I could fix the problems that might arise (worst case scenario: call people the next day and apologize).

Upside to this story are several. First, I remembered how convenient my life is. My apartment is located just up the street from a wonderful cellphone repair shop. The owner is a young many from Chaozhou-Shantou area, and he’s open from about 10 a.m. until midnight. He took apart my cellphone, replaced the screen, and sent me happily on my way in less than an hour. Second, people did call me, and even if they took the opportunity to chide my clumsiness, they helped me get through my day app free. Third, I was reminded that “I” am an idea that is as malleable as changing environments.

And yet. Joy bubbles up. These thoughts and feelings reveal how sensitive and how precise human consciousness actually is. Yes, it sucks that we’re using such a beautiful instrument to chase cat-giffs down the rabbit hole, but take the time to imagine: I am a middle-aged woman and in five years my sense of self could be reshaped to viscerally accommodate new kinds of social relationships. This is hopeful. We can learn and we can not but change because this “I” exists only in human relationships which are as real as the body and its virtual limbs.


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