Hugo Rifkind

Is that a bomb in your pocket? Or a Russian spy? Or both?

Is that a bomb in your pocket? Or a Russian spy? Or both?
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This is an extract from Hugo Rifkind's column in the new issue of The Spectator, out tomorrow.

Remember how much fun it used to be getting a new phone? I think of a friend a few years ago who was getting his first iPhone. He’d been on a waiting list, and he found out it was coming in on a Saturday when his newish girlfriend was coming to stay. She’d want to spend the weekend having wild and inventive twentysomething sex, he realised with a sinking heart, and perhaps going to the local farmers’ market. Whereas he’d want to spend it playing with his new iPhone. So he told her he was sick, and she accused him of having an affair. Which in a way I suppose he was.

It’s not like that now. You get a new phone and it’s basically the same as your old phone, albeit perhaps half a millimetre thinner. Dullsville. So congratulations to Samsung for their long-overdue achievement in putting the excitement back into mobile phones. By making them explode.

The Samsung Galaxy Note 7 is one of the larger smartphones around, only slightly smaller than one of those things we used to read before we all had them, which I think were called ‘books’. It is by all accounts a phone with almost no flaws aside from the way it is liable to burst into flames somewhat. The South Korean firm started selling them in August, and the first one blew up five days later. By the middle of September they’d sold about a million and they were blowing up all over the place. So they recalled them all and changed the battery, whereupon another one, now deemed safe, blew up on a flight from Kentucky. As of this week, the company has stopped making them and asked everybody everywhere to turn them off.

Phones are just phones, but this is a big deal. By some estimates the entire fandango could end up directly costing Samsung over $17 billion. Longer term, you do have to wonder how the world’s biggest manufacturer of smartphones could accidentally send out a bomb, and then claim they’ve fixed it, and then send out a bomb again.

Also this week, I read, smartwatches have been banned from cabinet. A smartwatch, for the uninitiated, is what you buy when you want the thrill of buying a new phone but the perfectly good phone you already own hasn’t blown up yet. A surprising numbers of MPs wear them, I think because they allow watching aides to give you a buzz in an emergency without anybody else noticing. But what they also do, apparently, is provide a route for the Russians or whoever to hear everything anybody says in cabinet and possibly see it all, too, albeit perhaps sideways and mildly obscured by cuff.

Once, I feel, you would not have needed rules which specifically told cabinet ministers not to take a hotline to the Russians into Downing Street. They might have figured that out for themselves.

Look, I am not a Luddite. I like shiny stuff as much as the next man and I live a happy, broad and fulfilling virtual life. Still, you’d have to be blind not to realise that the phone, the ever-present phone, has dramatically rejigged an awful lot of human behaviour very quickly. Parents, children, miles away from each other while in the same room. Those lost night-time hours in which you do not sleep, but refresh, refresh, refresh. The maps you used to hold in your head. Could I still make my way by car from my home in north London to a bit of south London I’d never visited before without a satnav telling me where to go? Probably, just, although my kids will regard it as witchcraft.

Whereas the stuff we used to regard as witchcraft? Eugenia Kuyda, a coincidentally Russian tech entrepreneur, this week unveiled a chatbot which lets you talk to the dead. As in, you had a friend, his phone blew up on an aeroplane and he’s dead now, but never mind, because he can still send an SMS. Enough of his life was poured into the cloud while he lived, and it can pour out now he’s dead. It’s not the real him, obviously, but real people are awfully 2005.

I thought about this, and I thought about the smartphones, and I started to wonder. Could the Russians concoct their own cabinet minister? Could they make, say, a David Davis out of the fragments snaffled from recordings from watches and phones? And if they could, would we notice the difference?

Where once we were entities, we are becoming nodes. This is why the ministers take their smartwatches into cabinet, even when they know that somebody might be listening. Without them, they would not be taking their whole selves, because our selves no longer stop at the skin. Yes, you have a bomb in your pocket. You have done for years. These days, they just explode faster.