A demon device

David Bullard returns to the blight on humanity that is the “smart phone”

‘One phone to rule them all, one phone to find them. One phone to bring them all and in the darkness bind them’ (with apologies to JRRT)

I’ve written previously about how I think the Smart phone is one of the worst possible inventions ever. This comment generally causes great mirth and mockery among anybody under the age of 50 and a good many of those above the age of 50 also snarl the word ‘Luddite’at me.

But, whenever I go out, everywhere I look there are people with vacant expressions staring at a phone screen. This includes those who obviously have no regular employment and hang around on street corners with paint brushes hoping to get picked up for a day’s work. These are clearly desperately poor people but they all have one common denominator….they own a Smart phone and they somehow have access to data.

Walking through my local shopping mall the other day just before most of the shops were due to open at 9 I noticed little groups of people waiting to go to work. But they weren’t happily chatting to one another. They were all silently staring, almost mesmerized, at phone screens. Maybe they were playing chess or maybe they were updating themselves on the situation in Sudan but, whatever the reason for the screen staring, it had completely ruled out the need for any human contact.

I’ve no idea what qualifies one as a social media ‘influencer’ but I must be getting close because last week I put up a Twitter post which has had almost 45000 impressions and 130 replies. It was hardly controversial (or so I thought) but this is what it said:

I went to a restaurant in Somerset West this morn for a breakfast where I was expected to download the menu from a QR code........................................... so I walked out. If you

can't print a menu then I'm not giving you my business.

Within a very short time responses started to pour in and they were pretty evenly divided between those supporting me and those (from a presumably younger audience) mocking my lack of willingness to adopt this great new leap forward for mankind. I was frequently reminded that a digital menu is a great way to preserve the few trees we have left on the planet. If you’ve ever looked at the bundle of legal documents being wheeled into a court room by the likes of JZ’s defence team you might think that the legal profession is a greater threat to forestry than the restaurant trade.

I was also informed by the sort of people who I imagine have multiple body piercings, green hair and who use weird pronouns (judging by their Twitter profiles) that ordering from a QR code is far more hygienic than handling a grubby menu that has passed through many sickly hands. Obviously a few ‘ageist’ insults had to be thrown in just to drive the point home. “What a hill to choose to die on” was just one of the more absurd comments I received.

My response to the hygiene argument was very simple and, I thought, perfectly logical. If I really believed that I was going to catch some dreadful virus from a restaurant menu then I probably would never leave home. If the restaurant menu carries all these nasties can you even begin to imagine what the tables, chairs, paper napkins and cutlery could do to your immune system. They are all a potential cholera outbreak.

I did point out to those who were not so gently suggesting that I was a dinosaur standing in the way of great technological innovation that the QR code at this restaurant was printed on a piece of card that had also obviously been handled previously by plenty of patrons so the viral risk was precisely the same as handling a printed menu.

I also pointed out that pointing a Smart phone at the QR code would bring up a menu that was so difficult to read on a phone screen that it would be much easier to have a printed version. I was told that you can enlarge the type on the screen to read the prayer book sized typeface which is perfectly true but why would I want to? I’ve gone out in search of breakfast and I may have left my magnifying glass at home.

Then there’s the problem of those who don’t own a Smart phone. It’s still possible to get hold of a Nokia 3310 (much favoured by the legendary futurist Clem Sunter) for around R1400. That model, and others, have bigger buttons designed to make them more user friendly for elderly users. One of the many things they don’t do though is recognise QR codes which is pretty tough luck on any well off wrinklies wanting to go for breakfast at this particular restaurant.

Rather than ‘stamping my little feet and stomping out’ (as several respondents commented) couldn’t I have asked the waitron to tell me what was on the menu? After waiting for about twenty minutes at a table with no obvious interest from any staff member and completely ignorant of whatever might have been on the bill of fare I quietly got up and left without eliciting any comment from the staff or owners. I didn’t stomp or make a fuss or complain; I simply left an establishment that showed no interest in serving me breakfast and went elsewhere.

Why is this a big deal? Well, it’s a big deal in my book because just after I Google something my computer screen is full of ads for that very thing.

When I was looking for a new car and checking the details of the Suzuki Baleno I had a deluge of Suzuki ads shortly after. I now know a bit about algorithms but I do find it scary that they can read the text of something I am writing or tune into a voice note and still come up with the appropriate advert.

Apart from not wanting to visit a restaurant that can’t be bothered to give patrons a printed menu I really have no interest in living in a dystopian nightmare where I have to point an electronic device at a QR code to pass Go. Incidentally, this will also bar me from my bank’s VIP lounge at O R Tambo but so be it.

I honestly don’t know enough about QR codes to know whether I can trust them but, bearing in mind the personal intrusion of everything else to do with the internet, I’m not sure I want to be part of the great experiment. If I point my phone at a seemingly innocuous QR code to find out how a restaurant prepares its omelettes what is the quid pro quo? Am I not allowing that interaction to gather all sorts of personal information about me; my cell number, my e.mail address, my contact list, my loaded apps? Where will that information go? Can it be used against me in some Orwellian future nightmare.

What came across strongly in the response to my original Tweet was the almost childlike delight in this new techno magic. Look, I can point my phone at a scrambled mass of bar codes and order breakfast…..whoopee…whatever will they think of next?

As far as I’m concerned there are only two issues here. The first is that our electronic devices are increasingly being used to harvest our personal details and that may not purely be for commercial reasons as we will no doubt find out to our cost. The second is that the whole point of visiting a restaurant for me is to be treated as a human being. So I want a printed menu, contact with the staff, recommendations, some friendly banter and a decent eating experience for which I am prepared to pay. A QR code doesn’t do that for me. And, by the way, I may want to pay with cash.


Those whom the gods wish to destroy they first make mad. It does appear that the gods are doing a rather good job at the moment in the US. As the New York Post put it:

Despite stubbornly high inflation and a looming debt ceiling crisis, Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg is asking Congress for $20 million in his department’s proposed fiscal year 2024 budget — to develop female crash test dummies.

Of course, this is less to do with evaluating the effects of a head-on collision on the human body (which are pretty identical gender wise when they hit an oncoming truck at 120km/h) as it is with women’s rights and the glass ceiling of test crash dumminess.

For years, the expressionless test crash dummies, identifiable only by their yellow jaundiced complexions and by what looks like a BMW propeller logo tattooed on the side of their head, have obviously been male. Finally female crash test dummies will be able to participate in Euro NCap safety tests which is a giant leap forward for society at large. I am confidently predicting that the US Democrats will soon announce a new programme which will allow trans-women crash test dummies to feel the the full force of a head on smash. Oh brave new world that has such people in it.