written in a spiral notebook

I wanted to write this first thing in the morning; I thought it – and you – deserved a clean and sober author, even if I knew I’d immediately succumb again. But I really did have to send a couple of emails, and one thing led to another, and now here I am – a cup of coffee, an inbox, a twitter feed, and one round of Candy Crush later.

The smartphone wins again.

Last week I traded my indestructible flip phone for a shiny Droid with a cheaper plan, and added a small tablet to my research battalion (an old 15-inch laptop, decrepit but loyal). I had known the day would come eventually; I made my decisions carefully. I thought I was prepared as The Internet became, not a place I might choose to go, but a layer over my entire life.

My phone, as seen from my tablet. Glowing its sinister glow.

My phone, as seen from my tablet. Glowing its sinister glow.

The first chance I got, I installed Facebook, Twitter, and Pinterest – and turned off all the push notifications. “I won’t jump at your silly beeps and tiny icons,” I said to my phone. “I own you, not the other way around.” I think it narrowed its eyes and growled back at me, but I didn’t notice. I was busy talking to my tablet.

For a 23-year-old American, I am embarrassingly bad at using these things. I installed five different PDF readers before I discovered, completely by accident, that the tablet has its own button to lock the screen orientation – thus, the apps didn’t. “I just got this phone,” I later cringed at the TSA agent waiting for me to do something – I knew not what – with my digital boarding pass. I’ve accidentally called a bunch of people whom I was trying to text. Sorry, guys.

But I’ve about gotten the hang of it. Now I stand my little tablet around the kitchen to play me music while I read recipes from it. I send picture messages with ease, and (unlike my flip phone) no one responds with “what is that…”. I read entertaining articles in waiting rooms instead of catching up on “what’s hot for the holidays, Christmas 1998”. I play puzzle games while I help watch my family cook. I Facebook-stalk acquaintances on the train. My mind never wanders. I never accidentally make eye contact with strangers. I never miss a soul-sucking Twitter battle.

As much as I want these devices to stay in their places – helping me in the kitchen and truly unconscionable waiting rooms – they already have tentacles in almost every moment of my day. What is it about them that mocks my intentions and demands my attention? Is it a need for connection, to feel important? Entitlement to entertainment? Some moth-like impulse towards flashing lights?

I did a big research paper on some of this recently. There seemed to be a trend: someone would write an article for HuffPo or The Atlantic expressing doubts or reservations about technology, and then someone else would respond dismissively in another article. The arguments generally amounted to, “This is The Future. Get over it.” Occasionally the tone would be more resigned than belligerent, but with the same bottom line: this is the way things are now, and your moralizing is not welcome. If you’re worried, you may proceed with caution in the privacy of your own home.

I find it inadequate and a little eerie that people are so defensive of their devices. Yes they’re great for lots of things – I, for one, am inordinately excited to have Google Calendar at my fingertips. But why shouldn’t we be thinking long and hard about something we keep on our person at all times? For millenia, maybe, you couldn’t leave home without some money and your keys – some ability to participate in the economy and your ticket back home. Now it’s wallet, keys, phone; what does that represent? Constant connection? Fear Of Missing Out? Being unconnected to the digital layer makes many of us as anxious or more than forgetting our wallets would – forget the lunch money, as long as we can still make the noontime rounds of social media.

But this is more than an “I Forgot My Phone” complaint. As childish as it is to check out of a conversation or moment with someone else because your device is shinier, that action belies an even deeper change in our orientation to the world. It’s the extreme form of an individualization, an atomization in modern society that sociologists have observed for decades. Far more than ever, our devices are making us into autonomous beings who bounce off of each other at intervals, joining groups and retaining obligations for exactly as long as it suits us. The phone invisible delineates the cocoon of my atom: its distraction shields me from the homeless person on the train; my preferred news app repels viewpoints I don’t want to hear; and I can cancel plans in favor of more exciting ones with a carefully composed, faux-regretful text that doesn’t subject me to the sound of anyone else’s disappointment.

Yet for all this self-determination, I’m mostly being led around by the nose. If my mind never wanders it’s because it’s being directed wherever the advertising dollars are. For every small time, idealistic journalist or blogger I discover via Twitter, I visit ten pages on HuffPo or BuzzFeed that generate enormous revenue by giving advertisers highly targeted access to my brain space. I pay for allllll of that free content by letting myself be conditioned as a consumer – all the more unconsciously because I “don’t pay attention to the ads”.

So an overlong essay by a humanities grad student ends with an apocalyptic pronouncement about corporations. But what am I going to do about it? I don’t know yet. I could sit on my hands every time a few seconds of boredom tempts me to whip the thing out. I can stop taking my tablet around the house with me like I’m an 8-year-old with a puppy. I can hope that the new rubs off a little and my resolutions to stay planted in the analog become easier to keep. I might uninstall a few applications, but as a blogger it’s hard to disengage from social media.

First I think I’ll look for a couple of alternative habits. Start bringing some crochet along to quiet my fidgety hands. Mark thankful moments in “real life” on Instagram, but also in writing. Read poetry, if even on the screen. Memorize poetry, even better. Pray for friends at least as often as I bow my head before that little blue-and-white bird.

Perhaps in time we’ll see that intangible layer brightening this one, instead of looming over it with its glamorous, but insubstantial glow.


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