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The species is doomed without a connection


Sydney Morning Herald columnist, author, architecture critic and essayist

View more articles from Elizabeth Farrelly

<em>Illustration: Edd Aragon</em>

Illustration: Edd Aragon

There are many things, dammit, that I do not understand. Why flowers and plumages become brighter near the equator. How it happened that ether - the ancients' name for ''high bright air'' and later for the anaesthetic that made you feel that way - has, miraculously, a molecule shaped like a bent-wing butterfly, R-O-R.

Why, during the Leveson Inquiry, the press felt compelled to lampoon leading counsel Robert Jay, QC, for a personal lexicon encompassing words like nugatory, pellucid and condign.

But right now my most pressing mystery is this. Why, well into the age of hyper-communication, market rule and relentless, ubiquitous travel there's still no box to tick on your customs form that says, yes please, these are my devices, here is my card, connect me. To everything. Now.

We all travel constantly. We check our messages more often and habitually than men ponder sex. We predicate entire economies on the idea that supply follows demand as slavishly as Julia follows Obama. So why isn't connectivity simple?

It's not like I'm holed up submontane Uzbekistan. I'm here in London's swanky SW6, and five days in I'm still offline.

Reason tells me life is still possible under these circumstances. When I first wrote for the Herald, I'd put child in stroller and stroller in bus to deliver my hard copy, which was transcribed into type and then hot metal. It sounds prehistoric. Yet people kept breathing. Life went on.

Now, though, the absence of electronica feels like a double amputation, and not only for teens. I'm appalled to find I cannot work, or even properly think, without connection.

True, there is a generational difference in emphasis. The kids miss Facebook most - and this in itself is a worry. We can be tromping in 15 cm powder snow (and slightly less-than-waterproof boots) through the ruins of Fountains Abbey and their inner voice is clearly going not ''what must it have been like, echoing with the barefoot Cistercian prayer'' or ''why is the stream running under the stone floor, here?''

Rather, their mental probe is, how will I make this chic and smart on Facebook? How will it make me look? Before the experience has even happened, they are sizing it up as an accessory.

This is all but universal, and what it means for human futures I cannot say. Perhaps nothing, or nothing new. Perhaps Socrates was accessorising Alcibiades all the while, imagining how they might look together in Plato's re-rendering for posterity. Perhaps van Gogh accessorised the yellow chair.

Perhaps the urge to Facebook is as much creative as dissociative, and the difference is only in degree.

But in truth I, too, am e-ddicted. I may not play phone games and, frankly, Facebook makes me feel trapped in a party with too many people trying way too hard to Have Fun. But even for a bah-humbugger, life-as-we-know-it is no longer possible without Wi-Fi.

Deprived of connectivity I cannot find my train or meeting, cannot check a derivation, a quote or a recipe. Already, writing this, I have been online a dozen times (as, no doubt, have you). And although some of this is entailed in the work, its real necessity is to my sense of wellbeing.

So five days is a lifetime. And it is not like we were unprepared. First, well before departure, we had unlocked our iPhones.

This in itself is a process. It used to be simple. Now, though, your carrier won't do it for you. Instead, he tells you to do it yourself, through iTunes. (There's that connectivity thing).

Yet the online forums are full of people saying they tried the DIY unlocking, and thought themselves successful - until they reached their destination and found no, the phone was still locked. That is what you don't need, so you pay someone 40 bucks to do it for you.

I'd purchased a travel router. Tired of hotels that provide cable broadband (to which light laptops like my MacBook Air cannot connect) but charge by the hour for iffy Wi-Fi, I liked the idea of a personal mini-network that can service all your devices at once.

Of course, all that means your combined e-devices, with their attendant chargers, cables and adaptors, occupy a good part of your baggage allowance. But it is worth it because, once you get there, connectivity should be as simple as a power adaptor and a new sim. Right?

Wrong. Landing at Heathrow, grey as the dawn, you watch everyone turn on their mobile and consider seeking phone help in the airport but decide it is wiser to find a High Street provider. So, after coffee and a shower, you head out to the nearest store and spend 60-odd quid on four sims, a week's usage, and a dongle. (Yes, embarrassingly, that is the word.)

Nothing activates in the shop, of course. It could take up to four hours, so off you go on your Scottish weekend, checking your phones every few minutes for a pulse.

It never arrives. The phones stay dead, the iPad needs one of those little sim-pin thingies and the clever little modem becomes unhelpfully dog-knotted with the hotel's cable socket, requiring the manager's assistance.

This leaves the dongle, bless its heart. Although slow and intermittent, it does at least work, so that by Sunday night the entire week's credit is used. Yet when you try to top up, the Vodafone system is down, and you can't. And still no phone-life.

Of course a phone is not a phone. That is a total misnomer. Making calls is for pussies. A phone is GPS, bank manager, social club, weather-cock and high-speed carrier pigeon, in one.

Hardly surprising that we see our phones as quasi-sacred objects. Arguably if humanity is to save itself - unlikely and undeserved as this might seem, it will be via some form of emergence. Such a scenario - in which humans, like slime mould, learn to act in many-headed unison - would likely give the phone a crucial, enabling part.

Which only makes it more remiss that no such tickable box has yet made it onto the customs form. If we can't get a few phone-providers to co-operate, what hope for the species?

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