I was in my late forties when I saw the first print ad for a “smartphone.” It was a Blackberry, on a towel, with sand in the background. “Now you can bring the office to the beach!” it said.
Why on earth would anyone want to do that? Wasn’t the whole point to be able to get away from things? So now you could sort-of be at the office, while sort-of being at the beach at the same time? What about the roar of the ocean, the sand between your toes, the beach birds looking for dinner? We’d trade that in to be in constant touch with . . . whom? Who was that important?
I thought of the old Firesign Theatre question: “How Can You Be Two Places at Once When You’re Not Anywhere at All?”
But the phones looked cool and—before long—had bright-colored circles on them and lots of buttons you could push. The more of these you had, the obviously more important a person you were.
The Future was here and was AVAILABLE FOR PRE-ORDER NOW!
It was a short hop from the Blackberry to the Cult of Apple, the every-two-years upgrades, with the “leaked images” of the next one that you had to buy, the one with a much cooler operating system, better graphics, better audio, more memory, and the birth of “unboxing videos,” wherein you watch members of the tech-press open and unwrap the earliest edition of the sexy things that are not-yet-available-to-the-public. Don’t you want it???
The full repercussions of this hadn’t hit me until I started working in a high school. The ordinary self-consciousness of kids walking down the hallways, averting their eyes if they didn’t want to make eye contact with someone, or, conversely, the coveted eye-contact and smile with someone who they thought was cute but hadn’t talked to yet, was completely replaced by everyone staring down at their hands, which held this little black box that they caressed, talked to, and poked at. Kids were literally bumping into each other because they weren’t looking up. They were texting/communicating with someone, but not any of the people in the immediate vicinity.
One year I chaperoned the Homecoming Dance at the high school. What I saw suddenly made it all clear to me: a boy and a girl dancing together, each of them holding his or her phone, staring at it and checking for text-messages as they moved with the music. No eye contact, no heat, no awkwardness, nada. They were there, but they were checked-out. They were somewhere between there and not there. They were nowhere at all.
I thought back to my own awkward experiences at dances: the courage it took to break from the pack of nerdy male geek-friends . . . the long walk over to where the girls were gathered . . . the tense, anxious moment of possibility when I actually asked Debbie to dance, and the strangeness of her saying yes, followed by not knowing where my eyes should go while dancing, and how I should move. There was the eventual mutual-melting into laughter with her and the emergence of some kind of shared acceptance of how weird this was, but fun in its own way, while I wondered what she really thought of me and what I really thought of her, wondering whether there could be some sort of ongoing future relationship, let alone just appreciating seeing, and feeling, up close what her body looked like and moved like, now definitely not knowing what to do with my eyes. Awkward, hot, problematic, and sexy, but the victories and defeats were grounded in the physical realities of our two teenage bodies, moving through space at the same time in the same place.
Awkwardness, rejections and triumphs were our teachers. We learned through our bodies and our minds. There was nothing “virtual” about it. Both heartbreak and joy traveled with us into adult life through the mind-body unity that we are.
The 60s/70s mantra of “Be Here Now”—made popular by the late guru, Richard Alpert/Ram Dass—has been replaced with “Be Here Not.”
Throughout that school year more and more kids reported to me, in counseling and therapy sessions, that they had a girlfriend or boyfriend (online). When I naively asked if their girlfriend/boyfriend went to the same, or a local, high school they told me, no, they were in California, Canada, Florida, or Oklahoma. They had never actually met them, you see, but they were quite connected. They had experienced each other—perhaps even in a sexual way—via Instagram, Snapchat, kik.com, Twitter, Facebook, and a slew of other underground apps that remained safely out of their parents’ world. They were insistent in describing these people as “girlfriends” and “boyfriends.” At first, I offered resistance to the idea, questioning them about the reality and accuracy of the term, but that only offended them. The connection of the relationship was what counted, and they often talked for hours with them, sometimes even falling asleep together across the miles.
Then some kids started bringing into counseling sessions alarming pictures of their newfound connections with cut-marks on their wrists and arms, or legs, strangle marks around their necks, accompanied by not-so-cryptic messages about “ending it all,” and “ending the pain.” It became clear, on many occasions, that our students knew actually very little about the identities of their intimate others. Things like real name, address, phone number . . . what town or state they lived in. But these things mattered to the police when they were called on to make a crisis visit. Assuming it wasn’t all an online prank in the first place, or someone else’s photo that had been stolen and posted, or a ploy on the part of an adult, jealous same-sex rival or stranger to get incriminating photos or words from the student herself or himself.
Smartphones have become our exoskeleton, one that protects us from the slings and arrows of actuality. What happens in front of us, in the physical world, matters to some, but it’s no big deal if it isn’t working out, because there is The Other World, in which things are actually a lot easier, more glamorous, sexier, and vivid. We see this in our adult, and teen, preoccupations with pornography, in which the actual persons in our lives can hardly compete with the eager, glamorized, slender, well-photographed hotties who are always ready to get down (without you having to hear about their days, their upsets, their parents or sibling, their physical ailments, or hormonal variations). All of this has now become part of the world of any eleven- or twelve-year-old with a smartphone.
We have discovered newer and newer ways to disconnect or—or rather connect—while not being here. A few years ago, in Bavaria, eleven people lost their lives on a train in a high-speed head-on collision. Here’s what they never knew: the man whose job was to be signal controller reportedly got caught up in playing a computer game on his smartphone. As the train rocketed towards a critical intersection, the alleged game-player gave the train conductors the wrong signal. He was connected the whole time. But not there.
I wrote a novel, Convergence, about the near-future, about the convergence of high-technology, the disappearance of traditional human sensibilities in the face of unrelenting, violent/sexual media bombardment, and the inevitable revolution against technology that will happen.
In the near future, we are all connected. But not here.
Note: Jerry Sander is the author of the novels Permission Slips and Unlimited Calling (Certain Restrictions Apply). He is a New York-based psychotherapist who has worked with teenagers and their families for more than three decades and is a graduate of Oberlin College and New York University. Influenced forever by Aldous Huxley and George Orwell, he is deeply concerned about the trajectory of the world we are leaving to our children.