From time to time, I succumb to one of the great delusions of the modern world: namely that a gadget or device will allow me to do something I’ve been doing for years faster and more efficiently, thereby gifting me more of the kind of time I so desperately need: down time. This is how mobile phones, netbooks and now e-books have all entered my life. Each time, I discover that said gizmo does nothing for me and then swear that I’ll never make the same mistake again, but I can’t help it – it’s like a coup de foudre; I see an advert or hear the twittery spiel of some deranged early adopter and off I fly into computer-generated fantasies of techno-adequacy.
The netbook was a case in point. I adore all small things as a matter of course, being at root infantile (but then aren’t we all? Surely the relentless evolution of all gizmos into a sole “white pebble” morphology is proof positive that we yearn to dabble for ever in the rock pools of juvenescence?), and while I already had a very small laptop, I convinced myself that by shrinking the thing an inch all round it would instantly become that much more handy. I would take it with me wherever I went and whip it out in public – a Promethean flasher! – then efficiently answer those pesky emails and swiftly type those columns on, um, the madness of gadgets.
To be fair to me, I did agonise over the purchase for a good month – after all, I have form – but inevitably I succumbed, only to discover, what? That the netbook not only remained zipped up, but also that, rather than finding it so small that I carried it with me all the time, it was, in fact, so insignificant that I could hardly be bothered to take it with me at all. I supposed that the netbook had done me a favour, that I would never succumb to the gadget gaga again, but then someone gave my wife a Kindle and I was off again.
Before I’d even started to play with the thing, I was fantasising about how it would massively enhance my flagging mental powers. With 2,500 searchable volumes at my fingertips, I would become effortlessly erudite; moreover, there’d be no more agonising over which book to take on a 90-minute train journey; not “either Rosemary Conley’s Complete Hip and Thigh Diet or À la Recherche du Temps Perdu” – but both! Then, I discovered that there were myriad classics that could be downloaded from the Kindle Store for absolutely free. At last, I would get to grips with Middlemarch, Moby Dick and The Man Without Qualities (for some reason it’s the Ms I’ve missed out on), just dipping in whenever I had a few spare minutes.
But you don’t read the classics like that, do you? Any more than you write the damn things on a small slab of plastic and micro-circuitry. Christopher Hitchens observed that if Casaubon attempted to penetrate Dorothea, it would be like trying to fit an oyster into a parking meter – and mutatis mutandis, the same image holds good for my trying to fit Middlemarch into my own tense and frigid brain. And while we’re on the subject of parking meters, what deranged, petty functionary imagined that introducing payment by mobile phone would make life easier for anyone, save the compulsive car-user? For those of us who only drive occasionally, the act of parking now involves 10 tedious minutes of data entry.
And while we’re on the subject of driving, satnav has to be the ultimate useless gizmo when it comes to saving time. I’ve lost count of occasions I’ve had to deprogramme a minicab driver and persuade him that just possibly I know a better route across town than his dash-mounted white pebble, as I’ve lived here my entire fucking life. What’s more, it astonishes me that there has been no public agonising over whether glancing back and forth between the world and a schematic representation of it while travelling at speed might be a distraction.
If satnav can’t be used while driving, it becomes distinctly obsolete – like all the other improvements in automobile technology, none of which has increased the average speed through cities by one jot in the past century. That’s the truth about whole swaths of technological advance: as it is to the individual, so it is to society. Superficial advances in areas such as medicine and domestic science provide us with more disposable time – but then we just fill it up fiddling with our iPhones. How mad is that?