Smart as they come

There have been several key changes in our history. I think first of the arrival of Roman Britain and the Norman conquest. Then came printing, and the part it played in the Reformation and in the intellectual life of the country. Following that was the establishment of the supremacy of parliament over the sovereign in 1688. But just as important was the change in communication: the penny post and the gradual spread of the telephone. But it would seem that we are already immersed in a new and important phase. This is the smartphone.

For various reasons I have recently been in particularly close contact with the younger members of my family – mainly in their fifties and their twenties. It would seem that without such an instrument I cannot really be said to exist. I have a vivid recent memory of a great granddaughter at her first birthday party watching a telephone throughout her specially prepared meal.

We are talking not so much of a gadget as a way of life. The intensity of the efforts to persuade me to buy such a facility, so that I can be said to belong to society again, tells me that I am in some way culpable for declining my proper connection with other people. I am seen as something like a hermit in my decline to join society in its network of digital connections.

Smartphones can be expensive. I see that you can easily spend £600 on one – and very much more if it is kept in a fashionable cover. I assume that they have become a matter of social display – proclaiming the prosperity and the taste of its owner. They appear to have an infinite range of capacities, and the extent of the range is more important than their actual use. (I will confess to owning a mobile phone, that cost me £15 from Tesco’s, and I still have to ask passers by to dial a number for me. It is of course never switched on but I do occasionally remember to charge it.)

I am not a digital antediluvian. I buy on line, I tax my car on line, I use the internet for a wide range of information from obscure philosophical texts to how to cook an omelette. I use emails in preference to letters. Indeed I started using computers before many of the current enthusiasts were born. Remember Alan Sugar’s Amstrad? But all of these are conveniences: facilitating pedestrian jobs in a more convenient way. They do not threaten the social bonds which hold us together. May we expect a very different future? Perhaps all our communication will be through smartphones – even if we are in the same room. If we occasionally need old fashioned communication some descendant of Amazon Echo will provide for us. (Yes I tested Echo long before it was on the market, I have my private connections.) And, if we need a cuddle, we touch the right key and out comes our robot – prepared to meet whatever need we have. We would of course have to decide what gender we chose to be that day, and what gender we wished our robot to be. We are all hermaphrodites now.

What jolly fun!

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About Quentin

Science Editor, Catholic Herald. Portrait © Jacqueline Alma
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23 Responses to Smart as they come

  1. Martha says:

    This really touches a nerve here, Quentin. One aspect we find very unsettling is that when our children visit us, they can be interrupted and contacted at any time, day or night, by a friend or business contact, with always the possibility of plans and arrangements being altered or questioned at very short notice. They do not see this as inconsiderate, it is more their way of life now. With a son in the business I have been given an Iphone etc. surplus to requirements or superseded by one more up to date, and use it myself quite a lot so I can see the convenience and the attraction.

  2. Barrie Machin says:

    Quentin in lighter mood but nonetheless challenging.
    I know we all have our pet stories but I know a lady who was given a phone in less heady days than the current scene. She was shown how to use it and quickly saw the benefits. Her first use when out shopping was to ask her husband to pick her up from town but was too embarrassed to use the phone the steeet.
    You’ll never believe be me but she actually went into a phone box to use it.
    It wouldn’t be so bad but it was yours truly she was contacting!

  3. tim says:

    We now have Personal Communicators, but we need more developments from science fiction. “Beam me up, Scotty!”. Matter Transfer Booths for transferring objects – and people – from place to place are overdue. These (if not too energy-intensive) would solve the problem (or perhaps non-problem) of decarbonising the economy – Certainly they’d reduce genuine pollution (nitrogen dioxide, particulates). But – unaccountably – little research is done in this area.

    • pnyikos says:

      Tim, you’re kidding, I hope. If a person’s body were broken down into its constituent atoms, it would cause instant death. Reassembling the atoms far away would not bring the person back to life, at least not according to what Christians believe about the body and soul.

      • tim says:

        I’m not entirely serious. However, I’m interested in your argument, and not totally convinced by it. Breaking a person’s body down into its constituent atoms certainly (in the present state of our knowledge) causes instant death. But you assume that reconstitution then takes place after this. Why? Maybe you could have instantaneously two identical versions of the person in different places? (indeed, there is a science fiction novel “A for Anything” which turns on a gizmo that duplicates anything put into it – including people. The story is mostly interested in how this leads to tyranny and slavery – but that’s not important right now.) I don’t think that theology is sufficiently developed (or in this instance certain) to rule this out.
        Meanwhile, however valuable such an invention might be, I could not recommend anyone to invest in unconventional research of this kind. But some (a very few) long shots come off.

      • Alan says:

        pnyilos – “Reassembling the atoms far away would not bring the person back to life, at least not according to what Christians believe about the body and soul.”

        We have seen some discussions about identity here. The materials that make up me at the moment, like the boat that is repaired plank by plank, are not the materials that made up me once upon a time. If we were ever able to teleport the physical me to a distant location (even if that involved destruction and reconstruction) what problem would that present for the idea of a soul beyond the problem it must already overcome as I age and am replaced more slowly … atom by atom?

      • Alan says:

        The thing about this that I find most puzzling isn’t really to do with either the science or the science fiction aspects of teleportation and souls. What seems particularly odd to me is that anyone comfortable with the idea of the supernatural and an immaterial element to our minds should or could place such a particular physical limit on it. How do you begin to draw the line between what the supernatural or miraculous can and cannot do in that way?

  4. John Candido says:

    My comment is missing. Have you seen it, Quentin?

  5. John Candido says:

    A smartphone is quite a convenient tool that is connected to the internet and is commonplace. It does come with issues such as one’s privacy as you are constantly followed while it is in your pocket. Its inbuilt camera can do some damage to one’s reputation if it is used inappropriately.

    The smartphone pales into insignificance when we are confronted by the robotic revolution that is on our doorstep. Driverless cars are robots and their advent will have a profound effect on anyone who drives a vehicle professionally. Taxi Drivers, Truck Drivers, Bus and Train Drivers are all going to get the boot eventually.

    Even pilots are aware that the need to have human pilots to fly aeroplanes, both civilian and military, will diminish as every decade advances. Look at unmanned military drones that are currently being used to hunt-down and kill enemies of the United States.

    They do have an unfortunate tendency to kill innocent people as well as those who are the principal reason that they are being used at all. This use of unmanned drones to hunt down and kill enemies in foreign lands has enormous legal and political difficulties.

    One use of robots that will be chilling to contemplate is for them to built to look, sound, behave as normal human beings so that it will be near impossible to tell which human is real and which is not. The is the advent of humanoid robots.

    Will Hollywood abandon human actors for humanoid robotic actors? They could start by using humanoid robots in stunts and when the technology is breathtakingly close to people that we know. They will be a damn lot cheaper than what they currently pay for ‘Stars’.

  6. galerimo says:

    I talk to God on my iPhone.

    Its easy.

    Over the years I have built up a broad structure of morning prayer – its framed around the blessed Trinity (Heneni/Our Father), the Angels, My personal angelic guide, The Holy nobodies (all the saints) and a few special patrons (Including Romero – a very effective supporter I must add), and then Mary the mother of God, who takes care of the whole lot for me.

    A few years ago I committed it all to my iPhone – I used “Word” – but “Notes” also works – I haven’t tried any other writing applications.

    Then (in case you don’t know) , go to settings, and select accessibility. Then go down to “Speech” and when it opens select “Speech Selection”. Scroll down and you see a little icon – it is a line between a tortoise and a hare. If you move the button along the line it increases or decreases the rate of speech. You can also select the “voice” you prefer by pressing “Voice” on the same Screen.

    And that’s all.

    Then each morning when I am travelling I put in my ear phones, open the Document in Word (or notes) which I have titled “AAA Morning Prayer”, because that puts it at the top if the list.

    Then I place a finger anywhere on the text and “select all” on the option bar that appears. All the text lights up.

    Then that option bar re-appears – at the end of that bar there is an arrow – you press that and you see the option “Speak”.

    Once you press “speak” the voice you have selected (above) begins to read all the text you have written at the rate you have chosen. (For prayer I choose a very slow rate, and in writing it all down I have left lots of lines between).

    So I have my mind being assisteded to rise in prayer and I engage with the words I am hearing while making my way to my destination.

    What do you think of that? Crazy or what?

    Am I talking to God or just to myself?

    • tim says:

      Very good plan – and an example of the sort of thing that one can do. Another possibility is to download the Office – eg from Universalis – not free, but a fairly modest one-off payment covers you indefinitely. So you can say daily any number of the offices – Matins, Lauds, Vespers, Compline, etc (as well as daily Mass readings) , conveniently downloaded a month at a time. Combine this with alarms on the phone to remind you!

      • galerimo says:

        Thanks Tim – Universalis is a great resource (mostly for readings at mass) and has been for a few years now – for the liturgy of the hours I use Divine Office.org – the American accent gets to be at times and I have to confess on several occasions dozing off especially (for some unknown reason) during the second reading at Office of Readings.

  7. John Candido says:

    As you engage with or intellectually connect to the words that are read out by your iPhone, you are most definitely speaking to God by using your iPhone as an auto-prompter to that engagement or prayer.

    ‘I talk to God on my iPhone’, is a cheeky way of presenting a short description that has a compounded or a plurality of meanings. To take the phrase as literally true is false as no person on earth can literally talk to God using any phone.

    If I may digress? If it was true and galerimo was, in fact, talking to God on his mobile phone, you would have to wonder what would be God’s phone number and whether or not galerimo would be willing to give it to any of us?

    If ‘666’ was the devil’s number then I would guess or calculate that God’s phone number is some sort of play on ‘666’. Could it be ‘000’? Possibly not as that is strictly for the police, fire brigade or an ambulance in Australia.

    What about upending ‘666’ and ending up with ‘999’? Interesting! Or you could add the three sixes to get the sum of 18 and either settle on ‘181818’ or multiply each 6 in ‘666’ to obtain the product ‘216’. If you were to add each of the numerals in ‘216’ you would get back to ‘9’. Funnily enough ‘181818’ could be converted back to ‘999’ if you simply added each ‘18’.

    If you added ‘18’ and then added another ‘18’ and so forth three times as there are three sets of ‘18’ you would get the answer ‘54’ which can be added together to obtain ‘9’ if you were to add 5 and 4.
    What if one were to use each ‘9’ as a factor and multiply. The answer is ‘729’ and mysteriously yet again if you were to add each of the numerals 7 + 2 + 9 you would get ‘18’ and ‘1’ and ‘8’ can be added again to obtain ‘9’!

    A pattern is emerging. Then again, it may pay dividends if we were to abandon this fanciful menagerie altogether.

    Does anyone know what the mathematical formula is that explains this mysterious property of ‘9’?

  8. galerimo says:

    Thank you John – it is good to read your response to my request for a “Reality Check” – I can easily get things skewed.

    I am sorry I don’t know the formula for “9” but I have a suspicion that you do and I look forward to hearing it!

    • John Candido says:

      I will confess to not knowing the formula for the number 9 and had to look it up. I could offer the reason why the number ‘9’ always has this magical power with every number but it will take me a couple of posts to do it. Not because it is complex to understand, but because I would personally try to explain it in such a way that any person could understand it, even if they had a deep dislike or fear of mathematics.

      This is the formula that describes algebraically why all whole numbers can be reduced to ‘9’.

      (10x + y) – (x + y) = 9x

      Very briefly, (10x + y) algebraically represents any original whole number that can be broken down to ‘9’.

      (x + y) is the digit sum of our original number.

      9x is the result of adding all of the terms in those two brackets in the formula above.

      Eliminating the ‘+y’ and the ‘-y’ as they add to zero we are left with 10x – x and this equals 9x which is our answer.

      If ‘x’ is any whole number and it is multiplied by ‘9’ the answer is always reducible to ‘9’ because one of its factors is ‘9’.

      For example, 9 multiplied by 8 = 72. 72 divided by 8 = 9 or using the digit sum method you get 7 + 2 = 9.

      I sincerely apologise if you do not understand all of this mathematical reasoning because It is a skeletal outline that assumes some familiarity with algebra. As I said previously it is really simple to understand but it would take me a couple of posts to do it justly. Its length would probably not be appreciated by Quentin so I hope that this very brief outline will suffice.

    • John Candido says:

      I don’t want to leave any inadvertent impression that I am a professional or an amateur mathematician because all of this is just a memory of mine that I found interesting many years ago.

      • tim says:

        Thanks, John – good fun, if slightly off-topic (but I fear that may be the pot calling the kettle black!). It only works because we have 10 fingers?

  9. galerimo says:

    Imagine a return to the old days of week long parish retreats threatening hell fire and brimstone as eternal and damning punishment for mostly sexual goings on.

    At the final sermon when the apostolic blessing is bestowed on the randy mob, finally subdued by their terrorising cleric, they could hold aloft their iPhones – now considered as “sacramentals” since they are a means of conveying grace.

    I can picture some poor sinner having forgotten to put their sacramental mobile on “Silent” or “Airplane Mode”, astonishing the entire congregation when asked to “renounce the devil” as they hear his ring tone playing “we’ll keep the bonfires burning brightly…

    • Martha says:

      I am afraid my ringtone went off recently, at Holy Communion, Sherwood Forest horns, which was likened by our priest to angelic trumpets, much better than the fires of Hell!

  10. ignatius says:

    Mine went off halfway through the bishops homily a while ago…a few months added on to my purgatory stint I guess…. On the main topic, I don’t see any major signs of degenerative nervous disorder in my daughter or the rest of her bright and breezy early 20’s gang of pals…they all still seem perfectly able to converse and act as decent citizens…none of them seem to have arthritic thumbs either….yet!

  11. Iona says:

    I was managing quite nicely (I thought) without a smartphone, until a few years ago when my elder daughter said she was allowed two phones on her iphone account, and would I like one of them? Of course I said yes (I did have a mobile phone but it wasn’t a smart phone). When she had given it to me, and talked me through a few of its uses, she messaged all her siblings to say: “I have dragged Mum into the 21st century”.

    • tim says:

      There are advantages in the 21st century, as well as dangers. The trick is to judge carefully, to maximise the former and minimise the latter (details of what and how are left as an exercise for the reader). But on the evidence of Laudato Si, I don’t think that Pope Francis has got this balance right.

  12. Peter Foster says:

    One result of the technology of social media is that casual, idle and sometimes malicious thoughts are broadcast and can multiply by association; where previously they might have been countered in their local social context by commonsense or decency.

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