When I was little, I was really into barnacles. Yes, actual barnacles – the ones on the rock shelf at low tide. I lived by the beach, so I visited them a lot. Most afternoons after school.
I suspected that there were different species of barnacles (it made sense that there would be) and also maybe even a visual difference between male and female barnacles (given the variety of birdlife around our home which had markedly different male/female plumage). But I had no way of finding out either of these supposings.
Some barnacles, I noted, had an extra little line across their middle bit at the apex of their shell – the bit that i supposed probably opened and let out feathery tongues so they could do their filter feeding thing, while underwater. Maybe this indicated gender? Or age? I wasn’t sure – and neither was anyone that I knew.
There was nothing in the Kiama library about barnacles. I had also consulted the family encyclopedia set in our loungeroom, sitting on our orange shag-pile carpet. But our Funk & Wagnall encyclopedia set lumped ALL barnacles into only a paragraph, as a group of filter feeding arthropods. Nothing on different species, or possible plumage.
I went as far as to organise my Dad to call the University of Wollongong marine science unit to ask about resources on barnacles. But we got the answer that there was no childrens resources they knew of that included detailed information on barnacles. I don’t want a childrens book, i said, I just want more info on barnacles – any info. Whatever you’ve got. But I said this bit to my Dad, as they’d already hung up.
My barnacle research came to a halt at this point. I ended up pointing my energies towards music, and away from arthropods.
So that was then – the 80’s and 90’s. Before smartphones and online museum catalogs.
If my now 8 year old suddenly shows interest in barnacles, however, it’s a different story – he is completely sorted. One typed word and two clicks of my phone later, we can be in barnacle information city. Barnacles for days. Everything you ever wanted to know about this dear arthropod is there – or at least enough to keep you very busy reading for quite some time.
And so, my question is… does this therefore mean that smartphones are a good thing? At least slightly?
Recently I left my smartphone on the back of a car and then jumped into that car and drove off, causing the phone to disintegrate as I pulled out onto the highway. Ouch.
It just happened to be my 40th birthday that week, too – lots of friends coming to stay, fun to be had, and not much time to sit hunched at my laptop looking up eBay auctions of second hand phones. So i left it for a day or two, which somehow turned into 10 days. 10 days without a smartphone.
I am embarrassed to admit that this state of affairs made me anxious – much more anxious than I wanted to let on, to myself or to anyone else.
I don’t think of myself as a heavy phone user – I live on a permaculture farm, don’t own a TV and have much better things to do (or so I tell myself) than endlessly scroll, text or talk on my phone. And yet. Once I didn’t have the option, I was… jittery. WHAT IF SOMETHING HAPPENS AND I DONT KNOW ABOUT IT.
Up until this point, I was adamant that I only used my smartphone as a tool. I would take photos of useful things that were happening around the farm, share tips about how to do permaculture stuff, organise community workshops, check train times, answer emails, call my mum.
Oh and read the guardian online. And scroll endlessly through instagram late at night for no good reason at all. Oh and look at Facebook, for a long time. And then realise what I was doing, and delete the Facebook app. And then reinstall it the next week. And again. And so on.
Never once did i look up barnacles, even though I could. Not once.
I’ve looked up plenty of other interesting things on my phone, mind you. I’ve learned a lot that definitely wasn’t in my childhood copy of Funk & Wagnalls. All about quantum entanglement, for example. And various mushroom IDs, on the fly, while out in the forest. How to get places. How to cook things. New music. Old music.
I’ve also been in countries where entire protest movements have been organised on smartphones – they’re powerful tools. They can help us do amazing things.
And then there’s my phone’s torch, which is at least as essential as half the internet put together, when you live on a farm. Want to look down a goat’s throat at short notice to dislodge a blockage? You’ll be wanting that torch that’s conveniently already in your pocket – i.e. on your smartphone.
As a tool, the smartphone is great. But they’re not just that, as we all know. They’re also insidious in their design, working and content, all engineered to get you to spend more and more time on them. Because app purchases. Because big data. Because attention that leads to addiction equals revenue, in all sorts of tiny ways.
So – that 10 days have passed, and I’m now re-phoned. Torch and wikipedia and gmail at the ready. Not sure if I’m entirely happy about it. Wondering what to do.
I could re-design my livelihood to go phone free!? But definitely not immediately, and possibly not successfully.
I could just use it for phonecalls, the camera and for well-lit goat throat inspections? Maybe. We’ll see.
I’ve been seeing a lot of information about phone use, kids and phone use, abuse, and how smartphones reduce our brain capacity. Also about folks that manage to go smartphone free, and how apparently wonderful their lives become.
It’s tangled. There’s class and privilege in this conversation, too – at both ends. Phones are ubiquitous to many of our lives, and our livelihoods. For some it’s a privilege to be able to choose to go without a smartphone – a sign that their lives, relationships and bank balances can function well without one. While for others maintaining enough credit to be contactable, and therefore ensure they can hold down a job in a increasingly casualised, penalty-rate free workforce, is vital.
So… I’m neither of these people – just somewhere in the middle.
But what I do know is that I want to live in the real world, not in the world inside my smartphone. I want to live in the world of mud and and bright night skies and dirty-faced children, of trees and wet grass and the tiny, tiny frogs that hide between my seedling trays in the greenhouse.
I want to read books, and draw things with my kid, and wonder what we should do next, this afternoon. And for the answer to that question to not be inside a screen.
Sometimes I imagine 30 years into the future. Will we even have smartphones, still? Will we look back on the decades that we missed – away from the real world – as lost time? Time when we could have been out in the forest, or drawing with our kids, or making fires, making food, making love or trying to make sense of it all? Back then, at a time on earth when looking around you – really seeing – and actually doing something about it all, rather than just scrolling endlessly, mattered so much?
I do not know. It is hard not to have and cultivate an online presence, supported largely by smartphone usage, in this day and age. A middle road seems necessary. But I’m pretty sure it needs to be a road that often leads outside, with the smartphone left behind, on the shelf.
To the sea. To the forest. To the rocks ontop of the hill, to draw and to eat and to talk. The barnacles won’t mind if I don’t know or understand their inner workings the minute I see a new one. We can look it up when we get home. If it’s really that important, we’ll remember.
Speaking of barnacles…
**and someone just alerted me to the fact that it’s the iPhone’s 10th anniversary today! On the day that I wrote my first + probably last ode to smartphones. Huh.