Friday, August 2, 2019

Them Phones, Them Phones Gonna...Walk Around

            It’s Friday night. Kids’re in bed. The Sonos is on the clock. There’s a cold one on my coaster and I’m feeling a little troubled. The dinner dishes have been tended to; coffee’s prepped for the morning. Everyone has clean clothes to wear. The bills are relatively paid. Car has gas in it. Grass needs mowed, but I’ve still got two days to get to that before my anxiety starts to churn. Summer’s sunset is upon us yet we’re mostly dialed in in the back-to-school department. Couple of fun trips on the horizon and of course, we have our health. In spite of all that, in spite of everything that’s relatively amazing about the world right now, there’s a fairly heavy albatross around our necks. And let’s be honest: It’s gaining weight by the day.

            I mean, I’m completely glossing over that our country is still way too unhealthy, way too full of hate, and way too helpless to do anything about the fact that there’s an idiot in charge of us all, but for the most part, I’d imagine that the lives of many United States citizens is pretty okay.

            What I’m talking about, of course, is the goddamned devices that most of us wake to, sleep by, and are engaged with perhaps more than anything across the average day. I don’t need to elaborate on this. You know exactly what I mean. I’m no exception and, what’s worse is that I don’t have a solution.

            I said I didn’t need to elaborate. I’m going to, though.

            I’m harkened back to the classroom of one Ed Gould. He was a typing teacher at Indian Hills Middle School. Dude was epic. His job description consisted of the education of one specific skill: getting his students to learn and master the typewriter. I can see the rocket ships on his blackboard now. I sense sweat collecting in my palms in anticipation of his silky, “Ready…Write.” and I can still feel my heart leap as his “Stop!” thundered across the room. This terrifying moment was always instantly lightened by the indescribable sound of a select few kids trying to hammer in a few extra letters beyond the buzzer.

            This guy had it all, though: overloaded pocket protector, black-framed glasses, touch of grease in the thinning, gray hair. Lot of respect for Mr. Gould.

            As crazy as this sounds, I sat in that room 31 years ago, completing his nightly assignments on a borrowed device atop our janky ping-pong table in the basement, clacking away as error-free as my brain and fingers would allow. What a notion, though: If all else fails, if you suck at every traditional subject, don’t like wood shop, auto shop, art, or music, and aren’t athletically gifted, we’re at least gonna make you all eligible receptionists. You know, assuming you can manage a calendar and some phone calls on top of your typing duties.

            Not that we’ve needed to make wild advances on that particular apparatus in the last three decades, but holy smokes were typewriters heavy and bulky. And now? Is there any reason to believe they’re not entirely obsolete? I mean, I’ve occasionally thought, over the years, how handy it would be for writing purposes, just to keep me off the damn Internet while I’m trying to get somewhere with a piece. Let’s be honest, though: That wouldn’t stop me, either. And for that reason, here we are.

            Anyway, it used to be quite a thing to word process a document for the purposes of sharing. Ya’ had to align your sheet of paper, crank that wheel, make sure your indent-on-the-fly skills were honed, and dadgumit if you messed up: that unmistakable forehead zit of White Out on your page.

            And now? Shit. What don’t our phones do? The searchability, the online ordering. e-mailing, texting, the growing amoeba of social-media channels. Music, movies, TV shows, YouTube, pictures, apps, apps, and more apps, and, of course, phone calls. It’s a literal wonder that we are still procreating.

            Of course connectivity is great and connectivity is different versions of love, but it kind of feels like we’re checking a real-needs box with a fake-engagement activity. I’m probably not doing this idea justice and I know everyone operates in different modalities, but I find the level of my own hypocrisy growing with each passing week. I mean, this whole minimized-screen-time agenda with which I parent has got to feel like a farce to them. Often. And how many times I pause in the middle of live scenarios to engage in a secondary one is inconceivable. The only thing I feel like I remain grateful for is that I haven’t become the absolute worst and by the absolute worst I mean all you Apple Watchers.

            Sorry. Huge, broadcasted-and-unfair generalization, but Jiminy Christmas with the wrist looking. At least the buzz I feel in my pocket registers in my brain and my brain -- most of the time -- tells my hand not to retrieve the device. The Apple Watchers, though…I feel like the raising of the arm to within eyesight is too easy not to do. I dunno. I just don’t like it. To me it feels like interacting one-on-one with someone who is on their phone for almost the entire duration of your exchange. Like, the top of their head is viewed more often than their face.

            Anyway…too far on the tangent.

            Our phones. We’ve got to do something. Or maybe it’s just me.

            I feel like I’m remembering a good chunk back now at the notion of one charge per day. And in the also-distant past is that quasi-non-chalant end-of-the-day feeling where your phone is going to die and you know it and you’re at peace with that. From there we (or I) morphed in to this below-20-per cent-is-troubling and that became that harried era where people were just always trying to charge wherever they landed. These days? I’m at 80 by 9:00 and usually under 50 by noon, so I’m managing varying forms of power sources wherever I am.

            And it’s dumb to be hindsightish or revisionary, just as it feels foolish to target one specific thing, but…I’m going to do both anyway. As far as the former, I get it. Shit just kept getting better and most of us wanted to keep up in some fashion or another. Kind of cool, kind of a conundrum. And here we are. Regarding the latter, though, I feel like stories have maybe kind of crossed the line a little bit. Not that there’s a guilty party, per se. It just happened the way it happened.

            What I mean is this: You remember MySpace, right? That was fun. Facebook obviously channeled its inner Wooderson as it sped up to MySpace and hollered, “I’m’a blow yer doors off!” The thing changed the world and, in over a decade, has gone from cool/new thing to a wildly legitimate medium that most everyone uses to a thing you sometimes need to be leery of. It’s great, though, for many obvious reasons. Twitter seems to have risen and fallen and had resurgences, but I still find it perfect for tailored-news streams, funny stuff, and as a unique sharing vehicle. Then came big, bad Instagram. Insta’, IG, the ‘Gram. It eliminated some of the clutter of Facebook, distinguished itself from Twitter, became the latest and greatest.

            Maybe you Reddit; a lot of you probably Snap. And I’m sure there are other platforms that matter to people that I’m overlooking, but I think we can argue that those’re the big three. For me, they all serve both a general as well as a specific purpose. What set things into orbit, though, were the stories. They’re atop your ‘Gram page, top right in your Facebook. And they’re insane.

            I watch them. Don’t get me wrong. And occasionally I’ll throw one out there, but I might as well be a giant, fat guy on a tricycle trying to pedal in the wrong direction against the slippery, slanted grain in a world of professional Mario Karters. I just can’t seem to figure it out. But you know what? That’s okay, because my content is not that interesting. Really. It’s not.

            Here’s where it’s gotten bananas, though. Famous people, active ‘Gram-ers, the influencers, if you will. The folks who have 47 microscopic new dashes atop the screen every time you open one. They’re filming an insane amount of their lives. They’re in doctor’s offices, getting facials, at a transaction counter, driving, and exercising. All while filming. And we’re watching. Which makes the tier of folks below them do it, and the folks below those folks do it, etc. And some people are putting the same shit in their feed that they put in their stories, just -- I think -- in case there’re users that mostly do timeline or mostly do stories and they want to catch as many as possible.

            It’s. Insane.

            And that’s just social media. That doesn’t account for the three e-mail accounts, the group chats, text threads, Marco Polos, and 50 other reasons I grab that thing every day.

            I mean sometimes, after the kids are down and I’m grinding coffee beans, preparing things for tomorrow, I’ll find myself needing to have a late-evening sit on the toilet. And I take my phone in there every single time. What’s nuts about that is that I’ve already had a post-bedtime moment to pick the device up and open all the channels I allegedly need to open. I’m taking the phone in there and just opening thing after thing, disillusioned, mindless and numb, like I’m poring over a pack list for a three-week vacation and we’re moments from pulling out of the driveway.

            I’ll find myself coming back from device zone-outs and realizing that I not only uncovered zero interesting things, but my business has been done for a while. My legs are feeling a little tingly and there’re elbow prints on my thighs. A time or two I’ve been so screenstoned after a throne sit that I’ll move on to the next activity and, 15 minutes later not know where my phone is. And I’ll look and look until…Oh, yeah: I left the dumb thing in the dumb bathroom.

            The worst part about all of this is that I try to abstain. I purposefully leave it in other rooms and know when I have moments I don’t need it by my side. And I know a handful of folks in my tiny circle that’re remarkably worse than I am. And then I think about those influencers. I mean, there are people that have jobs to be that and do that now. They literally travel around and just do that. And get paid for it. And I can’t not think of that as frightening. At least a little. ‘Cause…I imagine that they also want to have an element of device in their actual, intimate, private life. So you’d have to assume they’re flirting with doubling the screen time the rest of us log.

            I dunno. This is all probably cut from the back-in-my-day cloth, but look at cars now. There’re three-pronged, portable-charging, and USB-cord-slot outlets in a lot of new vehicles. I got in the third row of a third-row seater the other day and found myself scoffing that there wasn’t something for us in the back-back.

            Obviously a ton of this technology is quote/unquote why we’re calling the world amazing these days, but sometimes I wonder if the world’s not just different and if different isn’t always synonymous with better in these instances. Of course Amazon Prime is fantastic, but doesn’t two-day shipping only reward quasi-instant gratification and ignore poor planning? Connection through social media is great, but we should all be measuring our doses better, I think. Now, the way we consume television and entertainment and media has probably been a mostly positive shift. I mean there’s nothing inherently wrong with a nation gathered around the box for the 10:00 news, but if we’re all critically alarmed with who’s controlling information these days then good for us getting it how we get it and when we get it. And side note: If you’re not at least a tiny bit alarmed, you should be. Sorry.

            I find myself almost longing for a Welp, I can’t purchase that item today or the occasional I can’t communicate with so-and-so right now, the normalcy of self-entertainment and real-live engagement.

            Anyway, that’s way more soap box than I envisioned, but I guess the point of it all is that I’m worried about us.

            I think maybe this wave of comedians and musicians that’re banning devices is a good thing. I like to imagine that a healthy amount of those attendees exit those performances having not only enjoyed the art they came to observe, but find themselves thinking privately, Ya’ know it was kinda nice not having my phone in there.

            I dunno. Maybe we’re okay. Maybe I’m overthinking it. Maybe we’re all gonna go to Burning Man together one day and have a giant cell-phone fire. Or maybe the uptick continues and we should all be encouraging our children to become ophthalmologists. Lord knows we got a pack of scorched retinas in our future. And here we are.

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