I was sitting on some rocks by the Cornish coast when a teenager swanned by on the sun-warmed boardwalk in front of me. The boy stood on the burning deck, preparing to dash across the sand, dive. Then his phone rang.
‘Luce! Yes, I’m at the sea… Was just going to plunge… Ran back to my mobile… Ha ha!… No, didn’t forget, will share that file on Google Docs… How’s France?… Awesome… Ha ha!’
Rage washed over me. I was angry because the boy had broken the sound of the waves with his silly ringtone and sillier chatter. I was angry because he had spoiled my own picturesque vision of him by doing something as banal as taking a call. But most of all, I was angry because he had distracted me while I was trying to take a scenic photo on my smartphone. I had been about to snap, click send and watch my message whoosh off from my Samsung Galaxy.
At the same time, a thought entered my head that’s been buzzing there ever since: we’ll never truly be on holiday again, any of us. The idea of escaping, switching off, is a thing of the past. Even when abroad, we’re at home because we’re in our usual place online. What is to become of us? We can no longer live without our iPads and iPhones, even while — or especially while — on holiday. Something about being away from our familiar surroundings makes us reach for our gizmos as a drowning person clings to driftwood. We’ve only had smartphones for a few years, and suddenly we’re unmoored, all at sea, without them. So jittery are we when offline that some prolific Tweeters couldn’t even last the 24 hours of last weekend’s #TwitterSilence — a take-a-break-from-tweeting campaign of solidarity with the women harassed by rape threats on Twitter. As for me, the very thought of travelling without my mobile leaves me immobile with fear.
Many of my holiday rites now centre around my IT toys. They are the last things I pack into my bag, because I use them to the very last minute. Also, I must ensure they’re all charged up, so I don’t have to suffer the agony of a juiceless phone during my journey. I’m extra careful not to forget all relevant cables and wires — I can think of no greater nightmare than being cordless in Cornwall. On my train ride to Penzance I checked my mobile scores of times, sometimes just to see if it was there. Nestled in my rucksack among coiled cables that resembled mouse tails, my phone seemed like a family pet.
As for the internet — how to leave home without it? The places I venture to and stay in are influenced by TripAdvisor. My tickets and reservations are made online, with barcodes and booking numbers that I show to various receptionists by waving my more-vivid-than-life high-pixel-density mobile screen in their faces. At my holiday spot I spend a lot of time bent over Google Maps, sometimes first glimpsing a street on StreetView while actually already walking on that street. I get about with the help of blinking virtual arrows rather than engaging with a local, or taking the risk of losing my way and coming across something unexpected. The joys of getting lost are lost forever.
Perhaps next time I’ll just check into the world’s first Twitter-themed hotel, Sol Wave House in Majorca, where guests are urged to communicate with the staff and each other with tweets. Chirrup!
The summer makes our year-round obsession with technology especially obvious. It’s OK to be reliant on gadgets when you’re at the office, but when you’re lying on a beach in your bathers and you feel an unbearable urge to check your Twitter feed, it feels far weirder. Walking along the beach in Cornwall it was astonishing how many people were stooped over their iPhones, cyber-surfing when they could be surfing, scrolling when they could stroll.
The fact is, our beings are now split in two — one occupies the physical world, the other the world wide web, and while the real-world self may be on holiday, the web-self is not. Or at least not until the holiday photos are posted online.
This is true of all of us these days, but it is especially true of our children and their children, the ones who grew up online, ‘digital natives’. It’s no longer enough to be somewhere lovely: it’s not quite real until the photos have been thumbsed-up, retweeted or liked. It’s as though if nobody online witnesses us next to the Empire State Building or the leaning tower of Pisa, then we weren’t really there.
Why are we so hooked? A cognitive scientist called Tom Stafford at the University of Sheffield has a convincing explanation. He reckons we’re hardwired to like low-risk activities with unpredictable payoffs. We refresh our email inboxes, our Twitter and Facebook feeds every few minutes the same way we keep pulling on the lever of a -casino slot machine: something fantastic may land in our laps, if not a heap of coins then a hyperlink to an interesting article, or a text from that bloke you rather fancy, or a poke from a friend we haven’t met in years.
And on the bright side, this particular addiction isn’t likely to destroy our minds, in fact it might even enhance them. There’s evidence to suggest that all the flicking to and from different devices and conversations helps you think faster, more flexibly and more creatively. While your teenager seems inert on her beach towel, staring at a touchscreen, she is in fact teaching her brain to multi-task.
On the dark side, a few natives may, well, go wild. In South Korea, where 65 per cent of teens have smartphones (up from 21 per cent two years ago), there have been cases of ‘digital dementia’ — early-onset dementia due to intense exposure to the internet. In China there are addiction camps for children and teens, where attendees are weaned off their digital obsession, sometimes in drastic ways such as being forced to do push-ups. There’s a nightmare holiday for you.
But perhaps there’s an idea here for us. Why don’t we all take an internet break this summer? At first it will feel like you’ve pulled the plug from your oxygen tank, but after a couple of days, as I discovered, you will sink into your restful environment with a sense of relief and freedom.
The liberating calmness is not only mental but physical — there’s something about being online that scrunches the physique, tenses the shoulders and makes our bodies feel as wired as our gadgets. And after we’ve had a bit of time out, perhaps we can get the internet in perspective and remember it’s true potential.
Imagine travelling back in time to well before the internet era, to meet the likes of Samuel Johnson or Denis Diderot. ‘Tell us,’ they would say, ‘What is the technological wonder of your age?’ ‘Well,’ we’d reply, ‘We have something called the internet, which is like an endless encyclopedia of information. Also, we are able to send messages that the receiver can read instantly. And we can beam across pictures and stuff.’
‘My goodness! C’est magnifique! And pray, what do most people use this internet for?’ And then, to our abiding shame, we would realise that we’ve had this incredible capacity at our disposal and chosen to litter it with photos of kittens and porn.
With the internet, we’re finally able to achieve the posterity we’ve always wanted, the immortality that we crave. Yet most of our emails and online updates are blather.
We keep friends updated on our breakfast; show off in a way we’d blush to do in reality.
A whole generation of young celebrities now spend a considerable amount of time taking and posting ‘selfies’ of their own washboard tums for their fans to gawp at. It’s literal navel-gazing.
The truth is that we text and tweet and email as much to feel like we’re in touch, to be part of things, as to pass on information. But we should temper this with a little old-fashioned respect for language. Just because it takes only a second to send a missive doesn’t mean we should take only a second to compose that missive. There is no reason we cannot see ourselves as living in a new age of letters, and write all our texts and mail, craft all our photos, with the kind of care, thoughtfulness, and sense of grace, style and humour required. In fact, there are some signs that this might be the way the internet redeems itself. It’s now fashionable among ‘net natives’ to spell out their texts properly and use decent grammar. It’s only parents who text C U L8R these days.
Am I seriously suggesting that you regard your BlackBerry Q10 (the one with the large OLED touchscreen) as a medium for poetry? Yes, I am.
Because if we do not lay claim to this new technology, and make it purposeful and beautiful, then it will claim us and we’ll never escape. Future generations will be doomed to spend their summers face down, swiping through photos of celebrity body parts.
All these thoughts were streaming through my mind on the train from Penzance back to London, as the English countryside flashed past, a series of windowed postcards.
The passenger next to me was busy filling in bricks on his Excel spreadsheet, creating a wall of blues and yellows and greens. Others sat as if in prayer, heads bent over their smartphones composing texts that began: ‘Just on the train…’