A day in the company of other people (either virtually or mundanely) does not pass without someone making an observation about people being on their devices—chiefly their smartphones. We get comments in restaurants while awaiting our order, on public transit, in social settings where sitting around among a group of people without a formal agenda is de rigeuer.
Some of you may have seen David Gerrold’s post of a photo on Facebook of a group of European high-schoolers sitting beneath a grand painting, every one of them glued to their phones. The initial round of comments were almost entirely people venting about “kids these days” and how shameful it was that these youth were wasting their time texting or watching cat videos when they were in the presence of the greatness of a Dutch Master.
Scandalized? I beg you to withhold judgment, because this is where the title of my article comes in. It is, you may have suspected, a play on the caption of Magritte’s painting “The Treason (or Treachery) of Images”. Magritte painted a pipe and captioned it “Ceci n’est pas une pipe“, (This is not a pipe) thus making the point that it is not really a pipe at all, but only a representation of one.
Hold that thought.
When I was in elementary school and junior high, my class was given an hour in the school library one day a week. We were allowed to check out, as I recall, three books. I did. Every week. Then, I had my mom take me to the public library, where I bagged the legal limit there, as well. I believe that was six. Nine books, judiciously savored, could get me through an entire weekend. I was not built for athletics. Pear-shaped people have difficulty with things that other folks find easy-peasy. I also had a congenital hip defect that I was unaware of until about three years ago, and was painfully shy and had an invisible “bully target” on my derriere. Books were my world. I spent most evenings and weekends (when I wasn’t riding a horse) sitting on my bed gorging on literature and folklore. No one—not even my mother—objected. Books were edifying, reading was an acceptable pastime, even in public places.
What does this have to do with the above-mentioned photo? After he got all the negative commentary on the school kids’ use of their phones in the art museum, David reposted the photo with some context. These kids were in the museum studying art history. What they were doing on their phones was research. (Some museums even have apps that allow you to follow a narrative through the exhibits as you go.) These kids could say, if they spoke French in Amsterdam, “Ceci n’est pas une phone; c’est un manuel.” Translation—This is not a phone; this is a text book. And the photograph David posted was not a photograph of kids goofing off texting; it was a photograph of kids learning about art. I will not attempt to put that into French.
My phone, likewise, is not a phone. In fact, the thing I least of all use my phone for is talking to people. My texting is largely between me and my daughters as I attempt to figure out where they have gotten to in a given convention hotel. Nor is my phone (his name is Groot) just a phone that happens to do other stuff.
My phone is a library that just happens to do other stuff. It is an open 24/7, portable, pocket-sized library. Its shelf space is virtually unlimited and, because it can connect to the internet, if I should happen to devour every bit of lit on it, I can easily acquire more, wherever and whenever I happen to be. Best thing of all—there is no legal limit to how many books I can check out from my itty-bitty bibliotheque.
Of course, my library also comes with a camera and dark room, a video arcade, a movie theater, a research facility, a word processor, a language translator, a dictionary, an encyclopedia, an address book, a GPS system, a presentation package and a device-independent virtual notebook in which I can clip news stories, take notes, even write my own prose if I so choose, but the mos
t important thing it grants me is access to knowledge and information.
Of course, like everyone else, I occasionally use it to post stuff on Facebook and send people pictures of cats.