I left college poor and under debt, so for awhile I crashed in my father’s basement. He lived on Long Island. Each day I took the train to the city to write advertisements and ghost articles for Prudential Securities. I loved the commute. I read a book a week and enjoyed the empty time.
In 1996 when I started commuting, cell phones were not yet ubiquitous. By 1997 they were everywhere. People got rude; lazy and rude. They stopped even trying to show courtesy. In a matter of months, the commute to the city became intolerable.
“I’m on the train. THE TRAIN. What? I can’t hear you. WHAT? I can’t hear you. Can you hear me? HELLO? I’ll call you when I get home. Seven minutes. No, six and a half.”
Cell phones weren’t always just a logistical device. Sometimes, though rarely, you’d get to hear one side of a fairly interesting conversation. Once I heard a girl sob into her phone that she kept getting drunk and sleeping with different men. Three in the past week. She kept telling her phone that she had lost control. The train car was silent. People pretended to read their newspapers but we were all listening.
Half the car wanted to give her advice; the other half wanted to buy her a drink.
I got cranky and developed a bad habit. Whenever someone loudly recited their number, I’d write it down. Upon exiting the train I’d call from the nearest payphone (kids, google “payphone” to see what I’m talking about here) and tell them I was sleeping with their spouse.
Since the peaceful commute was dead, I started staying in the city, relying on the hospitality of my future wife and her roommate for a bed. But I couldn’t stay with them forever, so I rented a place where I was tortured by my lesbian neighbors. One of them was a sex worker. She’s one reason I became a stock trader.
Anyway, so here we are in 2011 and everyone is in love with their fucking iPhones. They drive with them. They eat with them. They say they can’t live without them. They get upset if you tell them to turn their fucking phone off during dinner. They get even more upset if you throw their fucking phone in a pool.
People don’t seem to care that their phones track their movements. People, the same people who are worried about saving for their retirement and their children’s college costs, think it’s perfectly normal to spend $200 a month on phone plans. I think it’s nuts. $24,000 over 10 years for something that is not essential, steals your liberty, and makes normal human exchange anachronistic seems silly.
So why am I ranting about cell phones now? It’s because they’ve infiltrated my entire family and are starting to ruin the holidays.
When I was a kid we’d go to my Aunt Tina’s house after Christmas dinner. My Italian uncles would fight about politics over coffee while the children clambered under the table. There was one big table. My grandmother sat at the head. She ruled the family until she died at 100. As children were born, square card tables were attached to the larger table in a Dr. Suessian sort of way. After a couple of hours, we’d finally convince the adults to play a game together.
We’d stay around that large table all night, laughing, telling stories and getting to know each other. Things got crowded and it was always too hot but we were a family, and I was proud of my family.
Grandma’s birthday was January 1st. So a week after seeing everyone on Christmas, we’d get together again. We still go to the same restaurant each year to honor her memory. This year, instead of all sitting together at one table the adults were broken into three circular tables while the children were sent far across the restaurant to their own table.
The older table made up of my uncles and aunts was the liveliest. They were trading stories, old and new, and laughing. My table consisted mainly of my immediate family. My brother in law stared down at his “smart phone” for the entirety of the Jets game without saying a word. I looked over at the table containing my cousins who are all about 20 years older than me. A few of them were on smart phones as well.
I walked the quarter mile across the restaurant to where the children sat. My daughter started out playing under the table and drawing pictures with her cousin. That lasted about fifteen minutes. Then all the “devices” came out. A ten year old held up two.
“You have two iPhones?” my daughter asked.
“No, this is my iPhone and this is my iPod.” The girl was ten. She said this matter-of-factly as she pulled a handheld gaming thing out of her bag.
“You want to play a game?” The ten year old spent 5 seconds teaching my daughter how to “make cookies” on the phone. An hour later my daughter’s dinner went largely untouched and the sheets of paper upon which she had been drawing lay next to her bowl, blank. No nice drawings for Aunt Tina to hang on her refrigerator. The phone bleeped and blopped. She made “cookies.”
There was a clear devolution of social interaction from the older tables down to the young. It was sad. The NFL won. Apple won. The family lost.
George Packer wrote a great piece in the New Yorker this week about weariness. His article was about political reporters having to knock back utter lies, but his larger point resonated with me and my attempts, even among my family, to put their phones down, to turn their televisions off. He explains:
Certain forms of deterioration—like writers using “impact” as a verb, or basketball coaches screaming about every foul—become acceptable by attrition, because critics lose the energy to call them out. Eventually, people even stop remembering that they’re wrong.
The difference between me and political reporters is that I can’t stop remembering. Children should be plotting under tables and giggling. Adults should be talking to each other. Instead my family looked like a group of zombies, their faces lit by the blue-green screen glow as they poked at keypads.
People shrug and say “Lighten up. This is the way things are now.” All kids have phones. All little pop stars are sluts. A few hours of television a week won’t hurt you. All toys are made of cheap plastic. Everyone eats fast food.
This is the way things are now because YOU’RE MAKING IT THIS WAY. And it’s a worse way.
I wanted my 100 year old grandmother, or at least her authority, to be there so she could yell at everyone staring at their phones to wake the fuck up. I wanted her to remind everyone that we’re only here for a limited time and on our death bed it’s not Siri that we wish we had spoken to more.
Or better yet, speaking of dead people, how about a posthumous apology from Steve Jobs, a professed Buddhist. Surely he’d understand how awful it is that all of those meditative silences of a long train ride, or the shared laughter of a family dinner, are gone forever.
Meanwhile, I don’t only rant. Sometimes I just buy mexican food.