Incommunicado

I had a strange experience last week. It was called a holiday, in the far north of England, in some of the most beautiful countryside I’ve ever experienced in the UK, in Northumberland.

We stayed with friends in a cottage that was, to say the least, off the beaten track. It was three and a half miles and a 10-minute drive to the main road and a suggestion of civilisation. En route to the cottage, we passed the Dead End sign and started weaving up the single track, when allowed to do so by the sheep, lambs, cows and calves that enjoyed sitting on it, a good two miles from the cottage.

When we finally arrived there after an 8-hour drive on the Saturday afternoon, our host took great delight in telling us that there was no wi-fi and no mobile phone signal. It was interesting the effect this had on our party – two families, both including two girls aged 14 and 12, gadgeted-up to the eyeballs, with a laptop, three iPads, one Kindle Fire and eight mobiles between us.

 

Sense of relief

The mums, I think, let out a silent yelp of delight, thrilled that even if me and the other dad, Jon, a headmaster, wanted to work, it wouldn’t really be an option. To my surprise, I felt a sense of relief, that even if I wanted to work, it wouldn’t really be an option. And talking to Jon, he told me he did too. His main concern was following the cricket, as England took on New Zealand in the second Test Match, but there were no problems in that respect; the house’s technophobia didn’t extend to TV. Beneath the plasma set was a Sky box complete with all the trimmings, including the full Sports and Movie packages. Clearly, if they weren’t going to let us work, they were determined that we would be able to kick back instead.

The other element in all this were the kids. When they heard there was no wi-fi, they were, inconsolable would be too strong a word, but I have seen them happier. Normally when they get together – we live 100 miles apart – the first hour is spent comparing the latest, greatest free apps, then hitting the App Store to download the ones they haven’t got. No such fun this week.

Apart from breakfast, evening meals and sleeping, we didn’t spend an awful lot of time in the cottage. Every day was a trip to a beach – we got one truly beach-friendly day; a castle – Northumberland has more than enough of those to go round; or a local town or city.

On a couple of occasions, I took the laptop and my dongle on the road with me, having remembered some urgent email I should have sent before I left home at the weekend. One of the four kids – I’ll spare her blushes by revealing who – thought this was a very cunning plan, and insisted on taking her iPad for the car journey in case we found some free wi-fi as we travelled down the deserted country roads. I didn’t have the heart to tell her it didn’t work like that, though I’m sure it will one day via Google blimps hovering above the countryside or something similar.

In any event, I soon realised what a futile exercise this was. I could just about get online, but looking for the reassuring steady blue glow from the dongle, signifying 3G coverage, was a frustrating experience. Green for GPRS was as good as it ever got. I soon realised that the infrastructure in that neck of the woods just doesn’t compare with what I’m used to, and not just in and around London.

One day, I happened to get out the UK atlas and looked at the big map of the whole country on the first few pages, the one where they tell you what pages to head for, for each part of the country. As I did so, I was struck by the density of the road network south of a line stretching from Fleetwood on the west coast to Bridlington in the east. It’s not something I have ever noticed before, but compared to the part of the country north of this line, the difference is amazing, and I suspect that the mobile network infrastructure tells a similar story.

Whether the people living above this line care two hoots is a moot point. 10 years ago, I would have said no, but given rising smartphone ownership, I suspect there are some young people north of the line who have their sights on being what Forrester calls “perpetually connected consumers”, and who must find it hard, given the nature of the cellular coverage where they live. At least, I suspect, unlike us last week, they will have broadband at home.

Cultural highlights

Our trip to Edinburgh, five days into the holiday, was an interesting experience. The major cultural highlights, I regret to say, were Primark, New Look and Republic, but to be fair, the girls had earned their day shopping by not whingeing too much when we made them visit yet another castle.

They needed the mums for advice on what they were buying, so Jon and I had no choice but to find a Starbucks, drink coffee and read the papers. I could have taken my laptop on the 45-minute train journey and caught up with my emails by paying for East Coast trains’ wi-fi, but as we had banned the girls from taking iPads, I decided against it.

I had packed my Kindle Fire, however. Its smaller size made it easier to sneak into one of the dozens of secret pockets in my rucksack. So there we were in Starbucks, having done the papers. Jon had written his leaving speech – he’s moving schools after the summer break – so what next? We still had an hour to kill, so catching up on some of the hundreds of emails sitting unanswered using Starbucks’ free wi-fi was definitely an option. But after five days incommunicado, I felt a) that I would be barely scratching the surface; and b) that I just wasn’t in the mood for it. So instead, we streamed a Laurel & Hardy movie from LoveFilm and shared a headphone each until the girls arrived back.

Now my girls know a Kindle Fire when they see one, and they know that if you’re watching a movie on it, you’re streaming it from LoveFilm. There was an initial curious question around what we were watching – they tend to look at anything that’s not Britain’s Got Talent or Coronation Street as if it’s been beamed in from another planet – and then the realisation of how we were watching it. When the words ‘free wi-fi’ were mentioned, things turned ugly…

Overall, my week offline was an interesting, if unintentional, experiment. I’ve become so used over the years to catching up on emails early in the morning, late at night or in the after-lunch siesta period when holidaying abroad – either via wi-fi or a dongle – that it was odd, and I admit, a tad frustrating, not to be able to do so.

I think I probably did return home more relaxed and more refreshed than I usually do after a holiday, even if, I admit, the lack of connectivity left me feeling slightly more stressed than usual while I was enjoying it. On the other hand, while my out-of-office reply sufficed to let people know I was not around, and who to contact in my absence, it didn’t actually answer any of the emails that needed an answer. So after a week doing nothing, I spent the weekend catching up so I could hit the ground running again this morning.

I suspect this is a circle that can’t be squared, something we all just have to get used to, and that our perpetually connected kids will feel even more keenly as they grow up and (hopefully) get a job. If you’re looking for the Next Big Thing, I think whoever comes up with an answer to this conundrum, in the form of some super-efficient, hyper-intelligent email filtering system, looks like a good bet.

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