We’re having supper, or at least we’re supposed to be. I am sitting on one side of the table, and the other three are all bunched together on the other side. Not, as is often the case, in a dramatic spatial illustration of the state of family relations, but because Mr Fixit has bought an iPhone.
He says he didn’t buy it. He says that he happened to be in the shop renewing his contract, and they said to him, ‘Hey, we’ve got this iPhone hanging around, would you like to have it?’ This would be almost plausible, given that last time I went in for a similar purpose I had great difficulty persuading them not to throw in a DVD player, a and a car with my new phone.
So far, I have bided my time, and kept above the unseemly hubbub that greeted its arrival. But now it has been forced on my attention, I decide it’s only fair to give the rest of them a chance to prove that this little stranger in our midst is, indeed, going to change all our lives.
‘So what can it do?’ I ask, leaning over just far enough to see the screen, but not far enough to seem won over. ‘Look!’ cries Magnus, it can do this!’ From what I can see, the screen is occupied by a video of part of a glass of When you rotate the phone, the head of the beer rotates with it, slopping convincingly before it settles. I know enough about computers to know that you could have run the whole of Apple a few years back, with what it took to do that slopping thing.
‘Amazing! I’ve really been missing that in my life. What else?’
‘Look look Mum, it’s like that thing Primrose has on her fridge!’ It is indeed, it’s the little with the wiggly arms and legs, only depicted very realistically to look like a little chalk man on a blackboard, with wiggly arms and legs.
From the looks I’m getting, the answer is clear. But Mr Fixit, to whom technological zeal is mother’s milk, decides I deserve a proper demonstration.
‘Look!” He waves the phone above the Brussels sprouts, like a divining rod in a parched land. ‘I programme in the post code and I ask it, “What’s near me?” and it tells me.’
‘What sort of what’s near you?’
‘Well, anything you like – restaurants, dry cleaners, Post Offices’…
‘Okay. So, given that here in this living room are at least three human intelligences – each with many trillion times the computing power of that thing – who could give you the answer to all of those…’
‘Well of course I’m not going to use it here, am I?’ he responds tetchily. Luckily the phone, intelligent though it undoubtedly is, is not apparently smart enough to on its own behalf. ‘It’s for when you’re in a strange place.’
‘So, if I’m in a strange place, and I need to know where the Post Office is, my usual strategy would be to ask somebody. What’s more, with that I get the bonus of finding out whether the café or the is actually any good. Based on years of experience. Which your new friend here, lovely as she is, wouldn’t appear to have had the chance to acquire.’
He doesn’t even bother to respond to this one. We all know about men and asking directions. Plus, I have to admit, there is the increasingly real chance, in many London neighbourhoods, that an innocent enquiry as to the location of the nearest dry cleaner will result in a whole lot of unexpected new stains, and a one-way ticket to A and E.
He carries on. ‘Here. This is really good. You’ll like this. This is your sort of thing.’
He’s brought out his trump card. Maybe it’s an automatic supper-cooking function.
‘It’s a It’ll tell you the meaning of any word you want to know!’
I conceal my smirk in a forkful of seafood risotto, which has come out rather well this time. Who on earth does he think he married?
‘Okay, fingers on buzzers. Crepuscular.’
‘Relating to twilight.’
‘Clumsiness – watch out, Magnus, that plate’s going to…’
‘Okay then, Ulan Bador.’
‘Capital of Mongolia. Are they spelling it with a D these days? That must be something to do with a new phase in Chinese-Soviet relations, I suppose. Who wants seconds?’
Of course, as usual, I’m wasting my breath. It’s nothing to do with any possible use to which the thing might be put, beyond its use as a phone, which takes several weeks to materialise, given the apparently frosty relations between the parties involved in the switchover. With the added lubrication of more cash and software, it can apparently also be used to send emails, taking only about fifty times as long to tap out on its screen than the ones he already sends from his computer.
This turns out to be a tool for people who can’t spell, can’t add up and can’t remember their own phone number, but somehow still manage to have spare cash and time to play. Oh! I think I’ve just described Mr Fixit.
But that word ‘play’ holds the key. The children, and my husband, are mesmerised by its beauty, the transformations of its screen, its unfailing, cheering, gorgeous playfulness. This is not a tool. It is a toy. In my young day, children played with Sindy dolls and Mr Potato Head. Our children play with supercomputers. And their parents – at least some of them – are only too happy to play along.