I almost downloaded a pebble-identifying app – but some stones should be left unturned

In the great outdoors, I find peace. Up hills, down dales, on beaches and cliffs and in fields and woods, I am a study in contentment. Just me and God’s green Earth. And my phone. “Put the bloody thing away,” implores a voice next to me, or in my head. But I can’t comply.

It was the plane-tracking app that came for me first. Before I knew it, I couldn’t simply enjoy any blue sky if it had an aircraft in it. Now, I had to know exactly where that plane was flying from and to. The app tells me when it left, when it will arrive and, for added interest, where else it has been that day, and yesterday, and the day before.

And that ship out there on the ocean blue, halfway to the horizon? Soon I didn’t have to wonder where it was off to, either. I could know that, too. Instantly. The ship app goes one further – unbidden, it tells me where ships I once identified are now to be found. Why, only the other night, just nodding off, I was pinged interesting tidings about the SSI Excellent, a bulk carrier registered in the Marshall Islands (deadweight: 81,119 tonnes) that I saw in the Bristol Channel last summer. It had just left a city I had never heard of on the Yangtze for a port I had never heard of in Australia.

Things got better and worse with the advent of nature apps. No more wondering what that beautiful flower or tree is: take a pic and everything you want to know about it will be yours. Birdsong, too. Point, record, identify. Sweet.

But a straw has broken the camel’s back. On my Twitter feed today, an advert popped up for – I kid you not – a stone-identifying app. Show it a pebble and it will tell you what kind of stone it is. Can’t say I had ever wondered, but now you mention it … I clicked to download, but stalled just in time. This madness has to stop.

An image of myself walking on an idyllic coastal path came to mind. Every other minute, I would glance at the sky or the sea – and then at my phone. Or I would stop to point the camera at a plant, or at a songbird, or – dear God – at a bloody pebble. Much more of this and I will grind to a halt completely. I will just stand there, checking, identifying, reading, paralysed by my own curiosity. As night falls, I will remain there, absorbed by my star-identification app.

It used to feel marvellous to live in an age of such easy access to facts, but now I am not so sure. For one thing, five minutes after I have looked up the name of a flower, or whatever, I have usually forgotten it. The next time I see it, I will have to look it up again. Curiosity needs to ripen awhile. If the thirst for a bit of knowledge is slaked in an instant, the fact tends not to stick.

Knowledge is wonderful, but wonderment is better. How I miss wonderment. How I miss those pre-app days; the joy of idle, unanswerable, vaguely asked questions such as: ‘Which bird is singing that beautiful song?’ An eminent theologian once said to me that if God were proved to exist, religion would die, because its power resides in the mystery. So, with planes, ships, flowers, trees, birds and who knows what else, the apps will have to go. I want my sense of wonder back.

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