Waiting is something I'm not so good at. At the moment I am waiting to hear on some big news about a book project. It could take up to eight weeks - and it's driving me crazy! Waiting is so much harder than working and being unoccupied is extremely difficult for me. In fact, as a result of not being able to wait, I have rushed, overtaken, crashed and burned. Patience is a virtue, a character trait to develop and it feels like a lost art to me.
This week, whilst my son was waiting for me, he scrolled through old photos on my phone. He clicked on a video taken nearly two years ago during a visit to the Greenwich Royal Observatory in London. I didn't see the video but heard it from across the room and it instantly took me back. Not to the visit itself, although that was a great day - a sunny, bustling day in Greenwich, walking through the park and museum - no, it took me further back to a time I had forgotten.
The sound on the video was from a recording at one of the exhibits in the Royal Observatory - the speaking clock or talking clock. Some of you may remember the voice on the other end of the phone line when you dialled 123 in the UK. The voice was unmistakable, and the script was always repeated and read without inflection or emotion. "At the third stroke, the time (sponsored by Accurist) is three o'clock precisely". It was efficient, practical and precise, but oh so human.
As a little girl, I can remember ringing the speaking clock to change the clocks in our house, to set the time of a new watch or just for the fun of it! Listening to the voice on the other side was strangely comforting and reassuring. Hearing the recording on the video was like stepping back in time and it got me thinking about how our use and relationship with phones has changed so dramatically in the last thirty years.
I have a love/hate relationship with my phone. It's ability to connect with everything is both brilliant and problematic. I enjoy the fact that I can check what phase the moon is at, arrange a surprise gift to be delivered or while the time away looking at other people’s gardens - all from a single device. But the power of this connection is also what separates us - becoming focussed on a screen or window on the world that can be removed from real life and true experience. I often think I will get rid of it one day, go back to a simple mobile which only makes and receives phone calls and texts, in case of emergencies.
I think back to before I had a mobile or smart phone and the various separate tasks I would do daily. This is a short (!) list of what life was like before Apple streamlined my day. I would: keep a 10p coin in my pocket to use in the nearest telephone box, use a separate camera, write and receive letters to and from friends, do difficult sums on a calculator, take notes in a notebook with a pen, refer to a physical map or stop to ask for directions, watch the evening news or buy the Sunday paper, wait each week for a new episode of my favourite TV show, look out the window to see what the weather was doing (and take an umbrella and coat, just in case), borrow a real book from friends or the library and sit patiently each Sunday to hear what song had reached number one in the charts.
Coming back to the idea of waiting. It feels like so much of our experience is available 24/7, at the touch of a button, instant access at sometimes lightning speed. Rather than waiting in a queue to be served by a real person, we rush through a self-scan till point, we drive-thru, binge watch, swipe left (or right), pay Klarna, opt for same day delivery and get frustrated at how long it takes for the kettle to boil! In this past year, patience has been a requirement, a characteristic needed to see me through the unknown's and uncertainties of a pandemic. As the world slowed down due to the required restrictions, I slowed down, took my time, enjoyed the journey of each day. Stopping to talk to neighbours, dog walkers and the lady at the checkout. I literally stopped to smell the roses in our local park. In fact, nature, who is ever patient, taught me a great deal - waiting each day for the first shoots of growth from seeds I'd planted, measuring sunflowers as they climbed higher, inch by inch and holding off pulling up the carrots too early, to allow them to lengthen and grow - knowing they would be all the better of I waited just a little bit longer.
Boredom has also been a long-lost friend that I have reconnected with. At first, boredom is an itch you cannot scratch and feels uncomfortable but sitting with it and listening to it allows for space and time to unfold in unexpected ways. Standing and staring out of the window, pottering, flicking through old books, busting a move in the kitchen - these are the fruits of boredom. Idly passing the time by not being productive is actually really beneficial. What our instant access, always switched-on culture has led us to believe and current Neo-liberal values have persuaded us to think is that unless we are productive, we are worthless. Well, we are not machines, our worth is in being, not doing.
Learning to trust in uncertain times is like walking up a hill backwards. I need certainty, I need to know and also, infuriatingly, to be right. Not having my phone to hand - being able to Google, check and have the answers at my fingertips - would feel unnatural and unnerving. Knowing brings comfort and safety, the smart phone has tapped into that primal need and has covered it with a beautifully designed false sense of security. When I wake up and the first thing I do is check the weather, this is not just a practical query, but a form of control to prevent and protect myself and my family from discomfort. My son, who is 6 and saw me doing this each morning, put it perfectly as he opened the curtains of our bedroom window and said "Mum, the weather is out there!".3
Belonging and connection is innate to us and our survival as a species. One thing a telephone does is connect us on a very human level. Beyond the humble phone call, Zoom and WhatsApp have come to save the day during these restricted times and are a lifeline for many. I love using this video technology to see friends and family, to talk in real time and see the expressions on their faces. I look forward to receiving video or voice messages much more than the ping of a text or notification. It is this human connection – seeing and hearing –
that make all the difference. Words as text have their place - but nothing compares to the human voice. Even reading stories aloud has a greater emotional effect than those read in your own head.
So, what does this mean for me and my phone? I think awareness is the key. Being an individual is important and not just aimlessly following the crowd, scrolling for hours or jumping on the latest and quickest bandwagon. I plan to continue with the slower pace of life - I do not want to return to a speed of life which moves so fast I feel like an observer rather than a participant. I hope to steady my hand and not simply press buttons to consume information or mindlessly pass the time. And I want to stay connected to people. That for me is the most valuable reason to own and use a smart phone or mobile device - not to be owned or consumed by it, but to use it for the power to connect, to reach out and share this life with others.
I'd love to know your thoughts on your relationship with your phone, you could even leave me a video message on my Instagram @iamsarahalexcarter
Now, where did I put that 10p?
Image from Unsplash by Annie Spratt