“There’s Nobody Here By That Name.”

A love story about telephone cords and jealousy

Years ago, phones only existed in buildings, and wasn’t that strange. To call a person, you traveled to a building and dialed another building.

If you’re of a certain age, your first experience with a phone was in your parents’ building. Your phone was part of your parents’ home. Which meant it was bound by your parents’ rules.

No calls after 9pm.

No phone in the bedroom.

Like that.

The phone had rules because the phone was connected to other homes. Those other homes held other people and different rules. The phone was like a foreign embassy that way; a foreign embassy in the sovereign land of your father.

The house was inviolable except for the ring. A phone call was always a surprise. Like a knock on the door that came from inside. Freedom was a longer cord. Freedom was an antenna that let you take calls in the backyard.

You used to live in that place, where you could receive calls. Now you are a place that can receive those calls. You are your own house. It’s always your backyard.

But do you call people? Very often? Anymore?

To call someone today is an act of familiarity, or an act of hubris, or an act of courage.

Once, the only thing phones could do was transmit your voice. They were metaphorical gateways to the world. Now they can transmit anything. It’s your voice that’s become the metaphor. But we still call them, these glowing orisons, phones.

And isn’t that strange. The profundity of the phone was that it provided synchronicity at a distance. Now the profundity of your phone is that it provides asynchronicity at scale.

An incomplete list of fun and engaging things you can do with your phone these days:

Email. Texts. Articles. Videos. Games. Ordering stuff. Porn.

It’s worth noting: other people made these things. Other people are texting you, or emailing you, or writing articles for you, or sending news alerts to you, or programming apps for you. And you are reading other people’s articles, or playing their games, or watching their porn.

In a way, you are making thousands of concurrent phone calls, and a thousand people are concurrently calling you. The Internet, like soylent green, is made of people. So when someone says we’re distracted by devices, that misunderstands the issue at hand. People are not distracted by devices. People are distracted by other people. Minds, distracting minds. And the thing that connected us 1:1 now connects us 1:infinity. If this were the film Her, we would each be Samantha. The hundreds of thousands of people we connect with are our very own Theodore Twimblys.

But then, we are each somebody’s Theodore Twimbly, too.

Which begs the question:

when you’re at dinner, or in a meeting, or standing at a bar with someone else, how do you feel when they begin to use their phone instead of talking to you?

Are you angry, because they’re rude? Sad, because you’re suddenly alone? Hurt, because you’re ignored? Maybe all of these things. If they’re hurting you by looking at their phone, would it hurt them if you looked at yours? What if they don’t notice you not noticing them? It’s not clear who or what is at stake.

But consider: maybe you feel jealous.

Jealousy is anger at another person’s connection to other people. You cannot be jealous of a book, or a mid-century modern couch, or an iPhone 7.

And you can not be jealous of another person’s Brooklyn carriage house, or pleasantly eager Australian Labradoodle, or Instagram photos of Puerta Vallerta, all sun and sand and perfect X-Pro 2 filters.

“There’s still a feeling of rejection when somebody says she prefers the company of others to your exclusive company.”

Jealousy is not envy. Envy is coveting an object. Jealousy is coveting a connection.

So when someone uses their phone instead of talking to you, it’s a multivariate rejection — it’s not that they could be doing several things, it’s that they could be doing several things with an infinite number of unknown people. How frustrating is that. It’s asymmetric. You are one person, and you’re being rejected by the possibility of everybody else.

But then, in your pocket, you feel it, too: the pull of your own phone, of all those possible people, like an undertow.

And we’ve always yearned for this.

The ability to do many things in a single moment.

To move faster so we can do more things.

For those things that we’re doing to reach more people.

To move faster along the X. To move higher up the Y. Which is why, say, using the Internet while flying in an airplane feels so powerful. He who sends the most viral tweet from first class, wins.

But the everyday reality is that some things take longer than others. Some things must be done before others. Some things can be done at the same time as others. And still other things can be done physically while mentally doing others.

Driving, for one.

James Garfield, for another.

He could write in Latin with his left hand while writing Greek with his right.

What a trick.

James Garfield: talented.

All of this is connected to why, perhaps, we don’t call each other much anymore.

Except for granny, the one who doesn’t text.

Phone calls take a lot of time. And phone calls prevent you from doing much else at the same time. At the moment of a call, you could be doing many things. But the caller is only doing one thing: the caller is calling you — and who knows how long that call will last.

This uncertainty presents a problem. The uncertainty is a problem because the Internet has trained us to always be certain. Specifically: to be certain of how long a single, discrete task is going to take.

But then, in your pocket, you feel it, too: the pull of your own phone, of all those possible people, like an undertow.

You may wish to consider, for instance, tapping on a link. Your decision to tap a link on your phone’s browser is based on your expectations of the future: how long you think that link will take to load, how long you think that content will take to consume, all that. If the page takes too long to load, you abandon it. If the content takes too long to consume, you don’t. We have learned this behavior through infinite repetitions.

Every day, tapping and clicking.

Until now, today, we implicitly understand the Internet in terms of speed and time. We sit, thumb cocked above the glass, always ready to spend more time.

Pay phones took quarters for time.

The Internet takes taps and clicks.

Those taps and clicks are opportunity costs.

And that is a more granular experience of spending time than we’ve ever had, ever.

Time is a continuum. This moment is a single point. The past is no longer. The future is not yet. We cannot go backwards into the past. We cannot go forward into the future. We exist, like Hannah Arendt wrote, in the eternal present. Taps and clicks remind you of this fact.

That the past is — just now — gone.

That you are — just now — about to spend the moments of your future.

The tap and the click are finite breaks in that continuum, forcing us to acknowledge our place in time.

Alfred J. Prufrock measured his life in coffee spoons.

We measure ours in taps and clicks.

This, by the way, is why Amazon’s 1-click buy button is brilliant.

And why Amazon Prime is brilliant.

And this is why Facebook’s Instant Articles is brilliant.

Or why Google indexing the web was brilliant.

Or why that stupid Yo! app was, in its own stupid Yo! app way, brilliant.

They get you to your destination faster. The history of the Internet is the history of marginal improvements to the speed of consumption. The reduction of friction, where friction is just another word for time.

And here we are, sitting, staring at a screen. While whatever’s behind the screen is moving ever faster.

There is profit in every millisecond.

The telephone allows us to be synchronized.

The Internet allows us to be the opposite. To batch ourselves. And with that untethering comes an explicit understanding of scale.

A phone call is a discrete task of maximal time and minimal scale. Any discrete task on the Internet is the reverse: minimal time, maximal scale.

If we are implicitly aware of the worth of a tap and a click, then we are explicitly aware of an interaction’s worth. And with every interaction we ask ourselves “How many?” How many people will view this snap? How many people will heart this gram? How many people will retweet my tweet?

In the real world where we’re sitting, reading this, butt on a hard chair, we exist in time and space. We are temporal somethings in space, and spatial somethings in time.

We have ways of increasing our spatial somethingness: by the way we walk, making ourselves appear a threat. By the way we are violent, striking others to decrease their space and increase our own. By the way we talk loudly, increasing the surface area of our impression.

But on the Internet, there is no space. There is only time. And there is only one way, online, to get more value out of any one moment in time: increase your concurrent audience.

Phone calls are 1:1. The Internet is 1:infinity.

Years ago, phones only existed in buildings, and wasn’t that strange.

Those buildings were attached to other buildings by a wire. To call someone, you traveled to a building and called another building. And when you moved, you took your phone with you.

There was a moment, between houses, your telephone sitting beside you in the car, when your phone number didn’t connect to anything.

Do you remember that feeling? A long time ago? Between houses?

It was as if you didn’t exist at all.


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