8th March, 2018

Existing in four dimensions

The expansive views from the hard-won summit deserved my full attention, but cognitively I was elsewhere; present in multiple locations by way of a weak but welcome signal.

The rocky and hoar-frosted summit of Bowfell, February 25th, 2018.

I’ve just returned from a few cold days in Great Langdale, a dramatic u-shaped valley in the Lake District National Park. I hiked the fells during daylight and worked a little each evening. On my walks, I made sound recordings and field-tested digital tools.

A campsite was my base, though I favoured a small wooden “pod” over canvas; simple yet sturdy, with electric light and power sockets enabling productivity beyond sunset. The modest heater was little more than a lukewarm ornament, and the bitter cold required me to wear most of my clothes most of the time. A couple of hours fireside at The Sticklebarn was my nightly luxury.

I wrote last year that in my youth our national parks “appealed to me the way Disneyland appealed to other kids,” and that appeal intensified with age. For weeks I’d been tracing dashed lines across maps and guides, familiarising myself with every detail about the area, meticulously planning and prioritising routes. On my first full day, I rose with the sun. The summit of Bowfell was my goal, and I packed for a challenging day above the snowline.

For sustenance, I chose high protein tuna sarnies, comforting tomato soup, easy-peel satsuma, Hobnobs, and a solid block of sugar, a.k.a. Kendal Mint Cake.

With the wintry conditions, I carried a few extra layers, plus—I’m relieved to say—ice axe and crampons. I quantified the hike with my Garmin. For recording sound, I brought my DR-40, boom hood, tripod, and binaural headset.

I made sure to include a paper map and compass that I knew I wouldn’t use. Digital mapping excels, but devices drain, and an analog backup is sensible — not least as evidence of preparedness should one require rescue. Of course, paper maps are a joy to pore over; the hiker’s vinyl record. I did wilfully carry a copy of Wainwright’s Southern Fells, his obsessive detail still genuinely useful, his evocative descriptions bringing poetry to place.

Last but not least, I held my iPhone close; capturing images, orienting myself, augmenting horizons. And as ever in these disconnected landscapes I hoped that altitude might offer a little connectivity; an opportunity to contact loved ones, review “engagement” on yesterday’s posts, and — crucially — diarise my ascent as an unfolding Instagram story. Pics or it didn’t happen.

The hard-won, hoar-frosted summit of Bowfell offered magnificent views in every direction, but also — at 2,959ft — a signal. It quivered between Edge and 3G, and I posted my story. Sent a tweet. Texted my Mum. Principally, I exchanged messages with my wife, at that moment ten thousand miles away in Tokyo. Eventually, my signal weakened to a death. I put away my phone and put on my gloves, saving my fingers from the gnawing bite.

I was invigorated by the challenging ascent, but also — I admit — satisfied I’d documented it as a small dent on social media; marked in real time, though likely appearing non-chronologically. I felt happy to have sent a note of safety to my Mum and conversed with my wife halfway around the world.

But in doing so, I opened the door to others. Launching Twitter, Instagram, and Messenger delivered brief glimpses of people I hadn’t carried with me in my thoughts; random reminders of those less welcome to join me on that mountaintop.

Oh, yeah, he exists. She exists too. This person is angry at the government. Oh, that person is walking their dog. Anyway…

Perhaps your latest thoughts or photos were amongst them, appearing to me at that moment, and to others elsewhere, by way of algorithm or timing.

Being digitally present in multiple places at once typifies the intriguing notion of humans (and increasingly, animals) existing in four dimensions. Previous advancements in communication, such as the telegram or telephone, offered us a means to travel beyond the corporeal shell, but never before could we project ourselves so multifariously, and with such ease.

I beamed myself from a summit in the Lake District, on a transient whisp of 3G. Physically I was high on a remote fell, but cognitively I transcended the location. Digitally I was very much present in Tokyo, and also moving in and out of several virtual spaces, leaving a small reminder on the feeds of friends and strangers in numerous locations for the rest of the day.

“Oh, yeah. Simon. He exists. He’s on a mountain. Anyway…”

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