I almost downloaded a pebble ID app – but some stones shouldn’t be flipped | Adrian Chiles

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

It was the aircraft tracking app that came to me first. Before I knew it, I couldn’t just enjoy a blue sky if it contained an airplane. Now I needed to know exactly where this plane was flying from and to. The app tells me when she left, when she will arrive and, for added interest, where she was that day, yesterday and the day before.

And that ship over there on the blue ocean, halfway to the horizon? Soon I didn’t have to wonder where he was going either. I could know that too. Immediately. The ship app goes one step further – spontaneously it shows me where the ships I once identified are now. Why, just the other night, just dozing off, I received some interesting news about the SSI Excellent, a Marshall Islands-registered bulk carrier (deadweight: 81,119 tons) that I saw in the channel of Bristol last summer. He had just left a town I had never heard of on the Yangtze for a port I had never heard of in Australia.

Things have gotten better and better with the advent of nature apps. Stop wondering what that beautiful flower or tree is: take a photo and everything you want to know about it will be yours. Birdsong too. Point, record, identify. Sweet.

But a straw broke the camel’s back. On my Twitter feed today, an ad popped up for – I’m not kidding – a stone identification app. Show him a pebble and he’ll tell you what type of stone it is. Can’t say I’ve ever wondered, but now you mention it… I clicked to download, but stalled just in time. This madness must stop.

An image of me walking down an idyllic coastal path came to mind. Every two minutes, I looked at the sky or the sea, then my phone. Or I would stop to point the camera at a plant, or at a songbird, or – my God – at a bloody rock. Lots more of that and I’ll stop altogether. I’ll just stand there, checking, identifying, reading, paralyzed by my own curiosity. When night falls, I’ll just sit there, absorbed in my star identification app.

It used to be wonderful to live in a time when access to the facts was so easy, but now I’m not so sure. For one thing, five minutes after looking up the name of a flower, or whatever, I’ve usually forgotten about it. The next time I see him, I will have to see him again. Curiosity must ripen for a while. If the thirst for a little knowledge is quenched in an instant, the fact tends not to stick.

Knowledge is wonderful, but wonder is better. How I miss wonder. How I miss those pre-application days; the joy of vain, unanswered, vaguely asked questions such as: “Which bird sings this beautiful song? An eminent theologian once told me that if it were proven that God exists, religion would die, for its power lies in mystery. So with planes, ships, flowers, trees, birds and who knows what else, apps will have to go. I want to regain my sense of wonder.

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