Some of us love being connected to a smartphone 24 hours a day, reveling in the superhero power it gives us to access the Internet from anywhere and carry on multiple private conversations concurrently.
The rest of us feel torn. We fear we waste too much time on our device yet are unable to resist its allure.
But the nature of the allure, like other passions and addictions, is powerfully individual.
I have no separation anxiety when away from my phone, especially because I usually keep the ringer on silent.
I have an annoying habit of not seeing texts for hours and then phoning rather than texting back.
Facebook and Twitter are fun to fill downtime waiting on something else to happen, but easy to ignore.
The thing that keeps me grabbing the phone too often is Google. Maybe it’s from being raised in a home that had a full set of encyclopedias and a mother whose stock answer to general-information questions was, “Look it up.”
My strong impulse when I spy an unknown critter on my potato vines or am not sure when to start zinnias from seed is to Google it.
Occasionally I turn to my stacks of resource books and back issues of Mother Earth News, but the way I use them — skimming the index for a quick, definitive answer — is no more virtuous than Google.
In both cases I’m caving in to a societal fetish for instant data at the expense of true knowledge.
Google and skimming for answers in books are the information equivalent of fast food. True knowledge, like slow food, takes patience and experience to acquire, but it’s more nourishing.
I was reminded of this one day shortly after moving to my small town, when a neighbor rolled up in his pickup and leaned out the window to ask how my vegetables were doing.
Rick didn’t know me well enough to know you never want to ask me an open-ended question about gardening. I gushed on and on about new techniques I had read about.
After a couple of minutes, Rick said, “You know what you need to do? Stop reading books. Whatever you want to grow, all you need to do is drive out to Betty and Charlie’s farm and ask Betty how to grow it. That’s it.”
Betty and Charlie Swift live on a farm 2 miles outside of town where they have been raising vegetables for 70 years. I already knew them because I buy eggs from them. After Rick’s visit, I started picking Betty’s brain about gardening as well.
I quickly discovered Betty beat books and Google hands down, because her answers were micro-targeted to Matfield Green and contained nuanced differences for wet years, dry years, cold spells, hot spells and so on.
But old habits die hard.
A couple of weeks ago, when I picked up six baby chicks from the feed store — because Betty told me to get chickens to control the grasshoppers that were eating my green beans — I borrowed a stack of books from my neighbor Bill, a fellow city transplant, about raising chickens.
I was giving in to the need for speed, wanting to become a poultry expert overnight.
The books had reams of data and left me feeling bewildered and uncertain on questions of basic care.
The next day, I went back out to Betty’s farm and asked her, “Can I put my 3-week-old chicks outside during the daytime?”
Betty said, “Not till they’re feathered out and not till it’s warmer than this.”
“How warm does it need to be?” I asked her.
“Warmer than this,” she said.
My data fetish had me craving a number (“73.5 degrees”), but Betty probably doesn’t even know what the number is.
She knows by eyeing the thickness of a chick’s coat of feathers and feeling the warmth of the sun on her cheek whether it is warm enough. That kind of knowledge is more valuable than instant Google answers, but it can be bought only with time and attention, commodities in chronically short supply for many of us.