Recently, due to circumstances beyond my control, I was yet again forced to visit a large Scandinavian flat pack furniture chain at the weekend. You know the one I mean, with largely unpronounceable and slightly vulgar sounding product names.

My request was a relatively simple one involving the return of a faulty component and to be perfectly fair, the issue was ultimately sorted out. However, my experience drew attention to a rather worrying direction in which the world seems to be unfortunately tumbling.

Presenting my request at a desk which stood underneath a large sign proclaiming “Customer Service,” I was drawn into a 21st century dystopian world where people exist only to serve their digital masters.

Flat-pack furniture warehouse. Photo: Wikicommons.

The whole interaction took about 40 minutes. No longer than it takes to dial a pizza, unless you live in the gridlocked garden of Hong Kong, Sai Kung. But 10 minutes longer than you are allowed to park in the “pickup zone.”

Throughout my relatively comfortable first world ordeal several members of staff politely spoke to me on and off, although this amounted to only about to 2 minutes of dialogue, where eye contact was kept to a minimum. The rest of the time was taken up by my facilitators trying to make the reality of the situation fit the inputs required by the computer screen. Despite the dominance of the digital reality, encouragingly some power did seem to reside in the bank of half a dozen ring binders that were regularly consulted to the rear of the desk.

IT savants clearly at the top of their game finally and literally came through with the goods, but it was obvious that the digital reality was far more important than the actual reality facing the crew of “Customer Services.” On completion of the deal and after I had sincerely thanked the several youths assigned to my job ticket as they high-fived, I felt as if a new high score had been achieved in the game of Hong Kong retail.

The media is currently full of exaggerated anecdotal stories about motorists driving off bridges because Google maps told them to do so. However, this does highlight the fact that we are turning into a species that first questions its own perception of the world before challenging the virtual interpretation. Social skills and common sense seem to have been abandoned in favour of the totalitarianism of the microchip. (As I write this, my computer changed my spelling of “favour” to “favor”!)

How many times have you seen supermarket automatons buying rotting boxes of overpriced imported American weed because the computer generated use by date says you’ve still got three days left? Try not throwing out your yogurt because it’s one day past the best before date. Use your eyes and nose – it feels almost revolutionary.

Photo: Wikicommons.

A currently laughable trending topic is digital detoxification. However, more interesting than these articles aimed at those unable to ascertain the bloody obvious, are the statistics regarding those who feel they are regularly ignored by family and friends at the expense of smartphones.

Perhaps the ironically-named distraction of social media is making users more antisocial? Don’t get me wrong, it clearly has a place in modern society and has been instrumental in aiding change around the world, from the Arab Spring to the Umbrella Movement, but it is only an instrument. A plethora of torturous regimes have fallen- it must be said not always for the better- not because of Facebook or Twitter, but because people where prepared to risk and sometimes lose their lives – their real lives, not the three allocated to them by a computer game – to protest on the streets.

So the next time you see an illegally positioned political poster on the window of a public light bus of a self-serving obsequious candidate smiling through a fog of lies in order to get elected at the expense of Hong Kong’s basic freedoms, try ripping it down instead of taking a photograph of it and turning it into an internet meme, otherwise you might as well try to reform Hong Kong by buying some flat pack furniture.

Iain Lafferty

Iain Lafferty has lived in Hong Kong for the last ten years and is a teacher of mathematics at KGV School. He is a father of two children, both made in China, and a resident and advocate of Sai Kung. In addition, he is a recreational writer and regularly contributes his opinions on everything to anyone who will listen, or not. He occasionally visits Hong Kong Island but often gets lost.