Last week I was at dog training with one of our flat-coated retrievers when the instructor asked if I had a photo of our German shepherd that she could show her friend. It took me a minute to realize what she was really asking: did I have a phone? Why no, no I don’t.
More accurately, we have a shared family phone. It’s an old smartphone that has almost no apps on it, mainly because we were trying to fix this odd glitch it has of restarting itself whenever it’s bored. We use it when one of us is away from home and might need to check in. It’s a tiny, neglected part of our daily lives—sometimes we have to phone it to find it.
These days it’s normal for people to carry their entire lives on their phones: contacts, texts (or Snapchat), appointment book, to-do lists, photos (half of which are also on Instagram), Twitter, a million personalized apps, and (for the older crowd, haha) email and Facebook. People are rarely without a phone in hand: texting, taking photos, Tweeting, changing the song they’re listening to, or just waiting for something important to happen.
What are people missing by always looking at their phone? Yes, there’s that bus coming at them as they cross the street, but I’m thinking about the smaller things. The magnolia that bloomed last week and is now shedding petals like the belle who stayed too long at the ball. The quail dipping and weaving across the yard until they find the gap under the fence where they can escape the oncoming dogs. The faces and stories of people swirling around you—looking at the tomatoes next to you in the grocery store, standing in line behind you at the coffee shop to order an Americano, or rustling in their purse for some change to take the same bus you’re waiting for.
How do you imagine stories about the world and its people if you don’t notice them because your surroundings have narrowed only to the line of sight that includes your hands and your phone?
How do you physically experience a world in which you don’t actively participate, focusing instead on a digital lifeline that keeps you separated from the here and now?
There’s a commercial that really gets to me, in which a group of hipsters from the city drive out to the wilderness with their ‘props’—a tent and other camping gear. They take selfies with the props, then pack everything up and head back to the city. No camping required.
Sure, you say, it’s only a commercial. But it’s representative of so much that I see in real life.
There are the people at Butchart Gardens, viewing the entire garden through the lens of their tablet or smartphone. What exactly do they see? The imagined expression on the face of the person to whom they’re sending their photos? The unwelcome glare of sunlight on their electronic screen?
What’s the impact of constantly having an electronic media filter between you and the immediate environment? Do you still feel the breeze on your face? Smell the heady fragrance of the spring tulips and hyacinths? Notice the staff working in all parts of the garden?
I wonder if it’s like the difference between typing and handwriting: people who take notes by hand absorb complex ideas more readily than those who type their notes. By extension, then, does looking directly at the gardens mean you see and absorb them more fully than when viewing them through a digital screen?
This disconnect between being and doing, of living life through a filter, extends from digital technology to automated power tools.
Lately we’ve been doing a lot of gardening and yardwork, having taken on the rather ambitious project of finishing the vegetable garden PLUS building a (fairly large) rock garden. We’re trying to get it finished while there’s still some chance of spring rains to help plants get established, before the summer drought kicks in.
Gardening is a perfect activity for keeping you grounded in the here and now—particularly in our neck of the woods, which isn’t called ‘Cobble Hill’ for nothing. If I see another rock I’ll scream: our soil is probably 50% rock, the rest is sand and clay. We’ve had to invest in a lot of hard labour to get this garden going—something that seems to be lacking in our neighbourhood.
Everyone around here has some kind of power tool to help them do manual jobs. Log splitters, backhoes and bobcats, the latest riding lawnmower, a tractor. If our neighbours are to be believed, living on an acreage requires some serious heavy machinery. Well, living on an acreage on a budget means the heavy machinery gets hired for a day or two, and we do the rest of the hard work ourselves.
We don’t have a log splitter, a backhoe or a bobcat, a fancy lawnmower, or a tractor. Our riding lawnmower is a 1990s era machine from Sears that came with the house—it ain’t pretty, but we’ve managed to limp it through two summers (and hopefully a third!) with semi-major repairs here and there. We have a couple of good axes and a hatchet. Our most advanced tool is the new weed whacker we bought last year—its blade attachment can hack invasive Scotch broom and Himalayan blackberry right off at ground level (this makes me inordinately pleased given the extent of invasive species on our property).
We hired a guy with a bobcat to pound in fence posts, dig holes for trees, and scrape out and place rocks in the new rock garden bed. But when the bobcat went home, we relied on shovels and wheelbarrows: moving six-foot piles of excavated dirt to the back of the property, raking rocks out of the garden bed, and wheelbarrowing yards of good soil into various garden beds.
Every time we want to plant a new tree—and we’re planting many because the previous owners denuded the property (with a backhoe, of course!), we have to dig—okay, hack with a pickaxe—a hole in the rocky ground. It becomes a battle of wills between the rocks and our sore backs.
But the payoff is that, when we look at the final product, we’re proud of the sweat equity we’ve invested in it. So far we’ve planted a dozen trees and filled the raised garden beds, and the rock garden isn’t far behind. It’s really starting to take shape, and our hard work is paying off.
Working outside also provides loads of sunshine and vitamin D. The ducks and Canada geese squawk and honk as they party it up in the marsh at the bottom of our property, and an eagle struggles awkwardly through the sky with a giant stick in its talons. Clouds of pollen blow out of the spruce trees on a particularly windy day (argh, my allergies), and worms and unknown beetles wriggle out of the soil in the ‘good’ parts of the garden.
Sometimes I feel like I live in the wrong era.
I’m addicted to static things. Words, photos, plants. The here and now – without a filter. I’m a writer and a reader, through and through—though I do love photography and the stories it can tell. But I don’t listen to podcasts, and YouTube videos, gifs, and emoticons aren’t in my vocabulary. I need my regular time outdoors, unplugged, away from the siren call of the interwebz.
Our team at Science Borealis recently started using Slack. While I really like the real time conversations and the sense of community it has engendered, I feel I’m getting too old (or is it too ornery?) to learn new digital tools. It takes me ages to find a suitable emoticon to punctuate a Slack conversation. Meanwhile the conversation’s gone on without me.
I knew I was really behind the times when my sister, who just joined Twitter last fall, sent me a gif. I’ve been on Twitter since 2011, but can’t stand tweets that are 90% emoticons, and find gifs irritating and distracting when they automatically play on your screen. Yes, I really am that much of a Luddite.
I’m not knocking the digital world. I love sharing stories and ideas via Twitter, and have gained a ton of professional know-how from the editors’ groups I’m part of on Facebook. I have many connections on both platforms that I consider to be friends—only some of whom I’ve actually met in real life. I recently created an Instagram account, as I want to capture more of the small moments in life and hone my skills at telling stories visually.
But I’m not the only one who thinks we need to step back and think about how we experience the world through these many digital and technological filters. As I’ve noted in a previous post, there’s a time and place for seeing and thinking away from our online connections—and a time and place for sharing those thoughts and observations via that online connection. But we are increasingly reducing our time away from our online connections, making it harder to experience the world without them.
What are the social impacts of not seeing or interacting with the people all around you—of talking on the phone while the cashier scans your groceries, for example, so you don’t have to exchange any small talk or pleasantries with them?
How do we define place in a world where people are increasingly not in the here and now, but floating in the digital ether—conversing with their friends and colleagues around the globe? How do we conserve our environment when we can just climb into the cab of a bobcat and tear up the landscape without breaking a sweat?
Maybe it’s time to put the phone down. Turn the computer off. Set the tablet to charge for the night.
Step outside instead. Take a look at the stars, at the moon inching its way towards being full. Listen to the frogs cheering on the spring season. Feel your feet on the ground, the grass damp against your shoes. And look forward to another day with shovel or pen in hand.
Without a filter.