this will take a minute

By Caroline Crampton,

Published on Oct 6, 2022   —   5 min read


I was browsing the selection of books in my local charity shop recently when I encountered something wonderful: a microwave cookbook from the early 1980s. It included all the greatest hits you might expect from such a text. There were “recipes” that involve decanting a tin of soup into a bowl and heating it for three minutes, several cheery injunctions to microwave fish, and the hair-raising suggestion that putting an entire leg of lamb in to “roast” will somehow not result in something poisonously raw. I enjoyed flicking through the book, putting it back on the shelf and then immediately forgetting about it.

Except I didn’t really forget about it. One aspect of it stuck with me, and it was this: the author truly seemed to believe that this one device — the microwave — was the answer to every culinary conundrum. Everything in that book was predicated on that underlying principle. Never mind if most kitchens already contain at least one device that is better suited for toasting bread than a microwave. You technically can dry out bread in a microwave, and so you should. And then poach a whole salmon in it too. The versatility of the device is its entire attraction. It isn’t truly good at any of these actions, but it can sort of do them all.

This idea lingered with me because it gave me an explanation for some recent purchases I’ve made and habits I’ve been cultivating. I didn’t realise it until I read the microwave cookbook, but all of these actions were aimed at taking functions away from my phone — another apparently endlessly multifunctional device that I am beginning to suspect is best used mostly as… a phone. A tool for communicating with other people, in all the various forms that takes.

The first step wasn’t even taken by me. My husband takes a lot of photographs of documents when he visits archives and was constantly running out of space on his phone as a result. So he bought a digital camera, the kind that my mother had in the 2000s. It’s small enough to fit in a pocket but uses external storage cards you can swap out so you never run out of space. The resolution or zoom is nothing to write home about, but it is decent enough for very amateur purposes. It just takes photos, nothing else.

Soon he was bringing it with him on walks and to family events. I’ve come to really enjoy opening up his emails with the link to download the best photos from whatever we’ve done recently. I certainly like that we can experience things and have pictures to keep without having to go through everything with our phones glued to our hands. Of course, it’s still handy to be able to snap and send a quick picture when I want to, but I can now do so with no expectation that this is the only way I have to record an experience.

After that I got a digital reading device, a Supernote A5X. I much prefer to read physical books, but when ebooks were unavoidable I used to read them on my phone and feel irritated the entire time. Like the camera, the Supernote really only allows you to perform one category of action — it displays digital text and lets you annotate it. You can’t check WhatsApp or reply to emails because it just doesn’t have that capability. It’s a well designed, single purpose device.

The same could be said of the cheap MP3 player that I now keep on me most of the time. It’s tiny, barely bigger than a USB drive, but it connects easily to my bluetooth headphones and stores many days of music, podcasts and audiobooks. When I was browsing reviews before making my choice, I found one in which the purchaser had complained that this particular device had an annoying animation of a padlock closing that displayed whenever it was locked, and that this took up valuable seconds. I remembered a line from one of my favourite podcast episodes, in which Jack Antonoff sings the praises of a vintage emulator he has that, when you switch programme, pauses for about 45 seconds and displays the message “this will take a minute”. I bought the MP3 player that likewise takes its time and it is serving me well.

I should be clear: I’m not at all suggesting that phones are inherently terrible or that we should all head for the woods and write articles about it. I do, however, think that the companies that make phones and the software that runs on them have a vested financial interest in monetising our attention, and that a big part of that is convincing me that my phone is the answer to every question I ask. And once I open it to perform one task, their every effort goes into keeping me there… to do what? Scroll material with ads served in between.

There has to be a space in between cutting myself off from technology entirely and the opposite extreme of “my phone is currently both filing my taxes and testing my blood for vitamin deficiencies”, I think. So far, for me, that has taken the form of returning my phone to its core purpose as a device for communication, and seeking better solutions for its other functions.

I’m essentially recreating my personal technology situation from about 2007, when I had a phone that could make calls, receive texts and take blurry pictures and little else. I checked my email when I was at my computer and never thought about it when I wasn’t. Perhaps this is just nostalgia, but the way I remember it, it felt like the devices served me rather than the other way around. That’s what I’m trying to get back to.

For the most part. If they invent a microwave app for my phone, I can’t promise that I won’t be tempted to use it to make toast.

What I’ve been doing and reading since I last wrote to you

— I’m deep into the “zero draft” of my new book, and it’s taken me to some strange places in the last couple of weeks. These include watching an entire performance of a Molière play in French (a language I do not speak at all well) and falling down a deep rabbit hole of academic papers about Paracelsus. I could not have guessed when I first came up with the idea of writing a history of hypochondria that I would have to become an expert in 16th alchemy but here we are.

— There is very little that I miss about Andrew Sullivan’s Daily Dish, but I did used to like the occasional “view from your window” photographs he posted from readers. I’ve now found the artistic equivalent of this in the “View from the Easel” series at Hyperallergic and I highly recommend it.

— I made a podcast about queer theory and detective fiction.

— I reviewed the books I read in September in detail over on my Instagram; among other things, I returned to Anne Lamott’s Bird By Bird and found it very helpful with the above book-writing process.

— I recently discovered the spy novels of Sarah Gainham and am about to start her non-fiction collection Habsburg Twilight: Tales from Vienna. If anyone with any power in publishing is reading this, please consider reissuing her — the price of secondhand Gainhams is getting ridiculous.

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