Moving image: filmmaker Anthony Powell has yet to find cold-beating tech solutions on his feet. Image: Anthony Powell for his film "Antarctica: A Year on Ice"
Show Hide image

What happens when your dishwasher breaks down in Antarctica?

When you're living at the bottom of the world, you can’t just pop out to a hardware shop when something breaks, so your appliances are like part of the family.

Can you connect to the internet at the South Pole? It might not be the most obvious question to ask when planning a trip to one of the coldest, windiest and driest places on earth, but it has an unexpected answer: yes. We often assume that Antarctica is a lot like the moon or Mars – dangerous, uninhabited and with no wifi. In the past decade the situation has changed.

Felicity Aston, who in 2012 became the first woman to ski solo across Antarctica, explains: “There’s a gizmo which turns your satellite phone into a wifi hotspot, through which you can then connect a smartphone.” Mundane as it sounds, it’s transformative. Gone are the days of lugging heavy radio transmitters across the ice; and it isn’t just a piece of kit, it’s peace of mind. As Aston explains: “I’ve been able to tweet, I’ve been able to make podcasts, and it’s also my lifeline. It’s the way I can get help if something goes wrong.” The bandwidth isn’t sufficient to upload photos or video yet, but Aston predicts it won’t be long: “I think that’s more a case of them bunging up a new satellite in space than creating new technology.”

Out there on the ice, hundreds of miles from any other human beings, her phone enables her to call anyone on earth. But that’s a mixed blessing, as the tantalising prospect of a chat with your mum when you are utterly alone can play tricks with your mind: “It was too difficult to have those loved ones effectively in the tent with me one minute, and then press the disconnect button and send them back thousands and thousands of kilometres.” The potential link it represented was psychologically important, though. “The whole time I was in my tent, I would have my satellite phone in my lap, even if I wasn’t using it . . . It became a symbol of the connection to the outside world, and I was literally clinging hold of it.”

Yet technology isn’t just a guarantee of safety or a means of alleviating loneliness. For Anthony Powell, a film-maker who has worked on the BBC’s Frozen Planet, keeping his equipment going in viciously cold temperatures is vital to being able to do his job. “Cameras tend to start failing at about -60°C with mechanical and electrical problems,” he explains. There is also the problem of power – normal lithium batteries fail after about ten minutes in the cold, so he has to wire up his cameras to car batteries. Video cameras work in Antarctica only with difficulty, so he has designed his own timers and motion-capture techniques in order to get the magnificent time-lapse sequences in his films.

Powell has been working in Antarctica since 1998 (he and his wife, Christine, even got married there). His most recent film, Antarctica: a Year on Ice, chronicles life from the point of view of the mechanics, technicians, cargo handlers, carpenters, electricians, cleaners and cooks who keep the research stations running. Technical problems are on a different level there. As Powell puts it: “You can’t pop out to the local hardware store to pick something up.”

On the Antarctic Sun website in 2012, Beth Jennings of McMurdo Station (the largest community on the continent) mourned the passing of their dishwasher, named Bertha. “She may not have been flesh and bone, but Bertha was indeed part of the family – love her or hate her,” Jennings wrote, reminiscing fondly about Bertha’s ability to “unexpectedly spew slime” over kitchen workers. Next to the report was a photograph of black-clad people standing around a dishwasher with heads bowed. The report recorded, only half-mockingly, that a “dance was performed in her honour”. At the bottom of the world, you have to take care of the technology that takes care of you.

Caroline Crampton is assistant editor of the New Statesman. She writes a weekly podcast column.

This article first appeared in the 10 April 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Tech Issue

Getty
Show Hide image

Forget “digital detoxes”. Spring clean your online life instead

Step one: remove the app on your phone which takes up the most time. 

In 2006, news broke that broke me. The British Heart Foundation unveiled a poster of a blonde girl guzzling a gallon of cooking oil. “What goes into crisps goes into you,” it read, as the charity declared that eating one packet of crisps a day equated to drinking five litres of oil a year.

I gave up crisps that Lent (an admirable act that was somewhat mitigated by devouring a six-pack of McCoy’s on Easter Sunday). Still, despite my continuing pack-a-day habit, the BHF’s statistic has never left me: 365 packets of salt and vinegar crisps are equal to five bottles of Filippo Berio. But other bad habits are harder to comprehend. Last week, I “liked” 36 things on Facebook, wrote ten tweets, and posted five Instagram pictures (two of which were selfies). What effect, if any, has this had on my mental and physical health? How much metaphorical cooking oil am I pouring into my body?

“You really don’t need to worry about the volume of your own social media interactions, based on the average digital user,” the founder of the digital detox specialists Time To Log Off, Tanya Goodin, told me. Goodin says that we “tap, click and swipe” our devices over 2,617 times a day and that the average person will post 25,000 selfies in their life.

Though these statistics seem shocking, what do they mean? What does swiping thousands of times a day do to our minds – or, for that matter, our thumbs? The experts are divided. In 2015, national newspapers spread stories suggesting that using an iPad would damage a toddler’s brain but the research didn’t mention the term “brain damage” once. In fact, as the Guardian pointed out in its debunking, studies produce mixed results: some say iPads help improve child literacy, others say they are distracting.

The studies about adults’ screentime are similarly hard to decipher. Heavy Facebook usage has been linked to depression but there isn’t any apparent cause and effect. Do depressed people use Facebook more, or does Facebook make us depressed? “Internet addiction disorder” (IAD) was a term originally coined as a hoax, but many now see it as a real and treatable problem. Yet it does not feature in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, and experts still struggle to set diagnostic criteria for it. How much internet is too much?

These academic ambiguities haven’t stopped the idea of the “digital detox” taking off. Detoxers refrain from using any electronics for a period of time in the hope that this will improve their mental health and real-world relationships. At the time of writing, if you search for “digital detox” on Instagram, you’ll find 25,945 people talking about their personal attempts. There are pictures of bike rides, sunsets and children playing, each posted – apparently without irony – to extol the virtues of getting off social media and turning off your phone.

Digital detoxing is also big business. Goodin runs workshops, retreats and camps where no electronics are allowed and the daily schedule consists of yoga, walking, swimming and drinking smoothies. The next one, in Italy, costs from £870 per head for a week. A multitude of such camps exist, as well as books, websites and guides on how to detox by yourself. To connect, man, you have to disconnect, you know?

All of this has made me a digital detoxing cynic. I don’t believe I need to switch off my phone to “live” better, because I believe my phone itself contains life. On Reddit, I can speak to strangers living hundreds of thousands of miles away about their lives. On Twitter, I can keep up to date – in real time – with news and events. If I want to learn yoga or make a smoothie, where will I go to find my local gym or the correct strawberry-to-spinach ratio? Technology can even inspire us to “get out more”. Last summer, the gaming app Pokémon Go spurred people to walk 2,000 more steps a day, and I’m willing to bet that brunch sales figures have skyrocketed since the invention of Instagram.

Digital detoxing relies on the vague idea that tech is somehow toxic. Even without scientific studies to back this up, most of us know from our own, anecdotal evidence how spending too much time on our phones can make us feel. We get down if our latest status doesn’t have enough likes, or our eyes hurt after the sixth “EXTREME PIMPLE POPPING” YouTube video in a row. So, at core, digital detoxing isn’t “wrong”: it is merely misguided. Instead of trying to cut out all technology for a week, we should be curbing our existing habits; rather than a digital detox, we should have a digital spring clean.

Delete – or hide – anyone on your Facebook friends list that you wouldn’t talk to in real life. Remove your work email from your phone (or ask your boss for a separate work phone if you absolutely need access). Delete the app that takes up most of your time – be it Facebook, Twitter or YouTube – so that you are forced to get to it manually, through your browser, and therefore become instantly more aware of how many times a day you open it up. Tanya Goodin also advises me to use my phone less at night. Essentially: go mild turkey. If this is too much and you believe you are addicted to your smartphone or laptop, then, of course, you should seek help (speak to your doctor or call the Samaritans on 116 123).

But most of us just need to get smarter about our internet use. Even if scientists proved that technology was damaging our brains, a week-long detox wouldn’t be the cure. Rather, we should focus on our bad personal habits and try to curb them. Do you get into too many arguments online? Do you ignore your partner because you’re staring at a screen? Do you post opinions you regret because you don’t think them through first? These behaviours are problematic – the internet itself isn’t. To control our lives, we shouldn’t switch off: we should get more switched on.

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 06 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Spring Double Issue

0800 7318496