The world at our fin­ger­tips

The Pilot - - EDITORIAL - Rus­sell Wanger­sky

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.

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