I’ve never thought of myself as the sort of internet junkie that can’t last more than an hour or so without tweeting, blogging or checking something online. I tend to be a briefly toe-dipping early adopter, then later on a resolute if unenthusiastic long-term user of new technologies. The idea is that this nets me the best of both worlds from new innovations. But last weekend’s stay at our elderly relatives has made me wonder if recently acquiring a smartphone has made me more reliant on a net connection than is healthy.
I love our relatives—friends of the family, really—who I’ll call J&B for the purposes of this article, and it was also grand to be able to meet up with my Mum and Dad, over from Spain, and my Granddad, whose 89th we were all celebrating. The thought of that spry old gent approaching 90, still able to touch his toes despite a bullet in the back during the war, overawes me slightly. He’s still healthy, if a little bit vague, and rather than turning frail he seems to be slimming down slightly and becoming somehow lighter with age.
J&B’s cut-offedness started to get to me, though. I knew from bitter experience that their broadband connection and sole computer—the two spliced together with a cheap USB modem—was almost impossible to use. Despite being theoretically quite speedy, both network and computer are crippled by filesharing malware, hogging the bandwidth and CPU cycles in the rather grim cheery-iconed pursuit of bugger-all. So as a coping strategy I had both my phone—which I was relying on to guide us home by referencing train timetables across a nippy change in Wolverhampton—and a mobile broadband dongle, courtesy of work. The latter would at least convert a decent mobile signal into something I could use to check email.
Except the house doesn’t have a decent mobile signal. It hardly has any signal at all, and certainly not in any rooms conducive to using a computer. Worse, as I was charging my mobile for the journey home, the substandard electrics in the house blew my mobile charger. I felt utterly cut off; purposefully so, as though I was in a Stephen King short story and the house wanted it that way.
Normally I can do without decent computer access—several successful holidays to my parents’ place in Spain are testament to that—but there’s a few likely candidates for the increased stress this time round. This is the first time I’ve been anywhere internet-poor with my new toy, a GPS-toting, GMail-integrating Nokia smartphone which it’s fair to say has changed my life. Being without it, while being in slightly odd situations—shopping in a strange town—where it would be really handy was confusing to say the least. Then there’s the fact that we’d just had a fairly stressful site deployment the day before I left for my “holiday”, and in the back of my mind I was worrying about something breaking. But probably the most likely precursor was the mini-conference I was trying (and failing) to organize for the day I returned, to organize from two hundred miles away from the venue, with no mobile, no internet and all my time taken up choosing between ten different types of tat in Bhs and failing to buy an M&S suit.
If the last problem underlay a slightly itchy, nervous quality to the whole holiday then I don’t know what the solution is. Don’t organize conferences for the day before your Granddad’s 89th birthday, is the main take-home message I can isolate from the whole mess, and that’s unlikely to be of much use in the future. Stay out of south Lancashire, is another possibility. Anyone who’s ever been to Blackburn will know how tempting that sounds.