The world at our fingertips
Around two weeks ago, on Bay Street in Toronto, I ran into a small woman pushing an umbrella stroller. Sitting in the stroller was a full-sized white standard poodle, its fur cut in the pom-pom cut some people seem to prefer for that breed. From its perch aboard the stroller, the poodle was taller than the woman pushing it. No one batted an eye.
Minutes later, on Yonge, I ran into a man pushing a full-sized, brand-new blue plastic City of Toronto recycling wheelie-bin, about four feet high, down the middle of one of the street’s four lanes. Long-haired, jeanjacketed, the man didn’t seem to care as cars honked and curled around him. The lid of the bin was not quite closed, propped open by the swell of his sleeping bag and the handle of a fair-sized pot. It was, it seemed, a different take on the mobile home.
Both made a simple point: not everything gets used in quite the way it was intended.
It’s a point I try — and fail — to make regularly about the brave new world of handheld electronics. I’m old enough – and have been in the media long enough – that I remember the old foot-leather approach to journalism. The way that I kept scores of indexed documents, files and reports, because nothing was as close as your fingertips. The way that everything was done in person, or if not in person, by phone. I can’t tell you the amount of time I spent in registries of deeds, searching microfilm and paper documents in file folders.
The amount of time spent on the sheer logistics of getting to where the information was; it’s hard to explain that to someone who hasn’t done it the way the world is now. The rafts of information available online — if you know enough to be able to separate reasonable sources from bogus ones — is a richness that could barely even be imagined years ago.
The ability to use a map function on your phone where you can get a photograph of the street where you’re going, an image of the address you’re heading to, to know what the house looks like. It is nothing less than breathtaking.
And don’t get me started on the massive documentary- gathering ability of something as small as your smart phone; need facts? Got facts, no matter where you are. Need to replace a broken heated power mirror on your car? Watch the how-to video while you work, tools in your hand.
It still startles me that I can be on the road on a Nova Scotia highway, write a column, then connect my laptop to a Wi-Fi hotspot on my cellphone and file pictures and copy from just about anywhere. It has made the job of a news loner immeasurably simpler.
And yet, with all the sheer potential of these tools, a huge amount of Internet bandwidth — 36.5 per cent, at last measure — is taken up by Netflix and the inherently passive process of watching TV. Another huge chunk, no doubt, involves the sharing of video on everything from baby’s first steps to the latest stupid human trick.
Walking city streets, I see far more people using smartphones to take pictures of food, talk constantly and tweet their latest thoughts. And then, as I’ve been doing for the last few weeks, be without your phone in another country or deal with the side-effects when it inexplicably stops taking a charge, and you’ll find yourself close to electronics withdrawal.
There’s no reason not to use your phone for anything you like; like recycling bins or baby strollers, it’s your phone, your choice. My point is we sometimes forget just how valuable a tool phones can be, even if they spend most of their time being something close to toys.