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I almost downloaded an app for identifying pebbles – but some stones should not be turned over Adrian Chiles

IIn the great nature I find peace. Up hills, down valleys, on beaches and cliffs and in fields and forests I am a study in satisfaction. Just me and God’s green earth. And my phone. ‘Put the bloody thing away a voice begs beside me, or in my head. But I can not comply.

It was the flight tracking app that came to me first. Before I knew it, I could not just enjoy a blue sky if it had a plane in it. Now I had to know exactly where that plane flew from and to. The app tells me when it left, when it arrives and, for extra interest, where else it has been that day, and yesterday and the day before.

And that ship out there on the blue sea, halfway to the horizon? Soon I did not have to wonder where it was off either. I could know that too. Immediately. The ship app goes even further – uninvited it tells me where ships I once identified are now to be found. Just this night, just nodding, I was pinged interesting news about SSI Excellent, a bulk carrier registered in the Marshall Islands (deadweight: 81,119 tons) that I saw in the Bristol Channel last summer. It had just left a city I had never heard of on the Yangtze to a port I had never heard of in Australia.

Things got better and worse with the use of nature apps. No more wondering what the beautiful flower or tree is: take a picture and everything you want to know about it will be yours. Birdsong too. Point, note, identify. Sweet.

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But a straw has broken the back of the camel. In my Twitter feed today, an ad appeared for – I kid you not – a stone identifying app. Show it a pebble, and it will tell you what kind of stone it is. Can’t say I ever wondered, but now you mention it … I clicked to download, but stopped just in time. This madness must stop.

A picture of myself walking on an idyllic coastal path appeared. Every other minute I looked at the sky or the ocean – and then at my phone. Or I stopped to point the camera at a plant, or at a songbird, or – dear God – at a bloody pebble. Much more of this and I want to stop completely. I just want to stand there, check, identify, read, paralyzed by my own curiosity. When night falls, I will stay there, absorbed by my star identification app.

It used to feel wonderful to live in a time with such easy access to facts, but now I’m not so sure. First, five minutes after I looked up the name of a flower, or whatever, I usually forgot. Next time I see it, I’ll have to look it up again. Curiosity must mature for a while. If the thirst for some knowledge is quenched in an instant, it tends to not take hold.

Knowledge is wonderful, but wonder is better. How I miss wonder. How I miss those days before the app; the joy of vacant, unanswered, vaguely asked questions such as: ‘Which bird sings the beautiful song?’ An eminent theologian once told me that if God were proved to exist, religion would die, because its power lies in mystery. So, with planes, ships, flowers, trees, birds and who knows what else, the apps have to come out. I want back the feeling of wonder.

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