I am leaving the phone at home

What might it be like to wander around without anxiously looking at a screen every ten seconds? I wo

I am leaving the phone at home.

Those words are easy to write, but not so easy to carry out in practice. But I think it's worth a try. Since I'm on holiday this week, I thought "Why not?" -- and so, I'm going to give it a go.

I was made redundant in the middle of June, since when I seem to have slipped into a familiar pattern of gazing at a screen for hours on end. Not that I didn't do that at work, you understand; but at least I was getting paid for it then. I've taken work home, and now I'm doing it for nothing. Work shouldn't be a hobby. Hobbies shouldn't be dull, like work. But there it is: my hobbies seem to consist of gazing at a set of characters on a screen, almost all day, every day.

It's got bad. I've started to venerate Martin and Lucy out of Homes Under the Hammer as gods in a strange duotheistic religion I've created. It largely centres around buying property at auction and ensuring that you don't forget to read the legal pack, but other than that it's a fairly straightforward new religion. I'm the only devotee, as far as I'm aware, but I keep the flame burning every morning at 10am without fail. The pair of them have become such significant figures in my poor puggled unemployed brain that I've begun to look forward to their daily presence as one might the arrival of workmates, or friends -- and the ritual of communion with these two property doer-uppers has led to me seeing them as worshipful, all-knowing beings.

Television, though, is not the only screen to which I bring my gaze every day. I have a phone, which I look at all the time, as well. And this: the screen I'm looking at now, the PC screen. If I'm not looking at one, I'm looking at another. Sometimes I'm looking at Twitter on my PC, while simultaneously reading tweets on my phone. Sometimes it feels like there's no point in watching TV without tip-tapping away on the tiny BlackBerry keys in order to tell the world that I'm watching the thing I'm watching, and that my opinion on it is X, Y and Z.

How did it come to this? Whatever happened to looking at things with your eyes, and just enjoying them for what they are? Is there no way we can simply sit through a TV show now, without telling random people on the internet what we think about someone's hair or who they vaguely look like? Apparently not. I can see the idea of the virtual community being more pleasant, less odorous and easier to shove out of the house when you want to get some sleep, but I worry there's a stage at which this all might lead to some disconnect with reality.

I remember looking at things. You know, just looking at them, without having to see them transformed into zeroes and ones on a small LCD in front of you to verify their existence. I remember when you could just go and see stuff, and enjoy it for what it was, without the necessity of a tediously framed and set up digital record; or going to gigs without having to film ten blurry, jerky seconds so you could prove you were there.

I don't want to come across as a grumbling old Luddite railing against the modern technology that allows me to write a blog or stay in touch with my friends in the "meatspace", or real world, more than I could ever have done 10 or 15 years ago, but there it is. I just wonder what it might be like to wander around without having to anxiously look at a screen every ten seconds. I have a feeling it might be some kind of liberation, and worth doing. So I'm going to give it a whirl.

I'll send you a text to let you know I'm all right.

Patrolling the murkier waters of the mainstream media
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A swimming pool and a bleeding toe put my medical competency in doubt

Doctors are used to contending with Google. Sometimes the search engine wins. 

The brutal heatwave affecting southern Europe this summer has become known among locals as “Lucifer”. Having just returned from Italy, I fully understand the nickname. An early excursion caused the beginnings of sunstroke, so we abandoned plans to explore the cultural heritage of the Amalfi region and strayed no further than five metres from the hotel pool for the rest of the week.

The children were delighted, particularly my 12-year-old stepdaughter, Gracie, who proceeded to spend hours at a time playing in the water. Towelling herself after one long session, she noticed something odd.

“What’s happened there?” she asked, holding her foot aloft in front of my face.

I inspected the proffered appendage: on the underside of her big toe was an oblong area of glistening red flesh that looked like a chunk of raw steak.

“Did you injure it?”

She shook her head. “It doesn’t hurt at all.”

I shrugged and said she must have grazed it. She wasn’t convinced, pointing out that she would remember if she had done that. She has great faith in plasters, though, and once it was dressed she forgot all about it. I dismissed it, too, assuming it was one of those things.

By the end of the next day, the pulp on the underside of all of her toes looked the same. As the doctor in the family, I felt under some pressure to come up with an explanation. I made up something about burns from the hot paving slabs around the pool. Gracie didn’t say as much, but her look suggested a dawning scepticism over my claims to hold a medical degree.

The next day, Gracie and her new-found holiday playmate, Eve, abruptly terminated a marathon piggy-in-the-middle session in the pool with Eve’s dad. “Our feet are bleeding,” they announced, somewhat incredulously. Sure enough, bright-red blood was flowing, apparently painlessly, from the bottoms of their big toes.

Doctors are used to contending with Google. Often, what patients discover on the internet causes them undue alarm, and our role is to provide context and reassurance. But not infrequently, people come across information that outstrips our knowledge. On my return from our room with fresh supplies of plasters, my wife looked up from her sun lounger with an air of quiet amusement.

“It’s called ‘pool toe’,” she said, handing me her iPhone. The page she had tracked down described the girls’ situation exactly: friction burns, most commonly seen in children, caused by repetitive hopping about on the abrasive floors of swimming pools. Doctors practising in hot countries must see it all the time. I doubt it presents often to British GPs.

I remained puzzled about the lack of pain. The injuries looked bad, but neither Gracie nor Eve was particularly bothered. Here the internet drew a blank, but I suspect it has to do with the “pruning” of our skin that we’re all familiar with after a soak in the bath. This only occurs over the pulps of our fingers and toes. It was once thought to be caused by water diffusing into skin cells, making them swell, but the truth is far more fascinating.

The wrinkling is an active process, triggered by immersion, in which the blood supply to the pulp regions is switched off, causing the skin there to shrink and pucker. This creates the biological equivalent of tyre treads on our fingers and toes and markedly improves our grip – of great evolutionary advantage when grasping slippery fish in a river, or if trying to maintain balance on slick wet rocks.

The flip side of this is much greater friction, leading to abrasion of the skin through repeated micro-trauma. And the lack of blood flow causes nerves to shut down, depriving us of the pain that would otherwise alert us to the ongoing tissue damage. An adaptation that helped our ancestors hunt in rivers proves considerably less use on a modern summer holiday.

I may not have seen much of the local heritage, but the trip to Italy taught me something new all the same. 

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear