We Are Everywhere And Nowhere All At The Same Time
On phones, friends and if presence will ever be possible again.
Iknow way too much about people I don’t know all that well. I hold seven gallons of cursory detail, about cursory people, in a four-ounce glass. In a way, we all are in the year of our lord 2018. Indeed, what used to take a couple hours of casual conversation — to suss out, to find out, to weed out potential pebble-wandering partners — now only requires a leisurely scroll through a social media profile. Within mere minutes, I can get an accurate sense of where someone’s from, what they’ve been through, where their political allegiances lie, what they do in their downtime and how their sense of humor hits me — if it hits me at all.
What used to take several dates, or repeated encounters in dimly-lit lounges, or quirky cornerings by the proverbial or literal water cooler, now requires a flick of the thumb — a momentary gaze into the soft blue glow of a screen. We used to reserve this gaze intentionally for intriguing people. Now we can learn each other’s interests, communication style and fashion sense without ever needing to meet in person, or without feeling any genuine intrigue at all.
Before you even arrange to canoodle or commiserate with someone in real life, over single-malts or saag paneer or 18 holes or lazer tag, it’s entirely possible — and probably likely — to know the names and faces of their children and parents, to know every concert they’ve been to, to know how long they’ve been married, or to know how desperately they’re wishing they could be married.
Last year, I met two people in real life for the first time, after I’d known them for over 10 years on the Internet. I expected it to feel like a first date or a hostage situation. Instead, it felt like a reunion of old friends. Is this good, bad … or just plain different? It’s hard to decide — perhaps I should ask my other internet friends.
My last 10 texts were to: an optometrist in Edmonton, a yoga instructor in Oregon, my mom in Orlando (hi mom!), a renaissance woman in Portland, a group chat of my best bros, an occupational therapist in New York, a marketing director elsewhere in Texas, a woman I met last year on a plane back from Phoenix, a co-worker sitting two desks away, and my sister in Nashville. It’s a haphazard, non-hierarchical hodgepodge. Each person’s 140 characters comprise how I see their character: all messages are weighted equally. Though, in some cases, I wait to open the messages I’m really looking forward to the way you save the largest Christmas present for last. You really savor those words and dream about the way their lips would move, spilling those same words to you in closer quarters.
And, sure, I will continue to text some of these people, and hopefully even see some in the not-too-distant future. I look forward to trips to various locations, to catch up with old friends, to embrace new ones. Still, I hold no illusions that some stalwarts of my social feed will fade just out of focus in due time. People often do, but the difference between how people used to leave you and how they leave you now is the candles of closeness burn hotter and faster, where in the past they would’ve never been lit in the first place.
We used to earn intimacy over a series of shared events — not a text thread. It was something beyond what could be conveyed in words, and in many ways still is. Closeness correlated with epic nights out, tears and sweat and booze spilled, life-changing moments savored together, favors done and offered with ease. Traditional intimacy is a gentle magnetism, like the way moons orbit a planet, or a beautiful redirection, like the way light bends in the water.
And yet, our current model of relationship-building starts with humans as profile pictures and status updates. Humans as entertainment channels. Humans as brands. Humans as micro-imperialists — lording over nebulous empires conquered via wit or clout, threaded together merely by each colonist’s shared unwillingness to press “unfollow.” The way we interact now changes the way we view and value things like boundaries, intimacy and comfort. It’s creating a system where we can constantly tweak our social circles to be exactly how we want it, when we want it, whenever we want it. And when real life gets to be too real, too much or not enough, we can escape back into our smartphones to change the channel and see who else is on tonight.
Iam now free to mentally check out of any situation I’m in. All it takes is my phone. In quarterly earnings meetings, at the brewpub with boring people, while unwittingly sneaking toothpaste through TSA line, by the sample cart at the grocery store, in the quiet calm of a contemporary art museum.
I can also use that same phone to get myself into those situations: I can text someone to meet for oven-fired pizza, invite my friends out for fernet shots, impulse-book a flight to Lima, accept a Facebook event to visit the pop-up exhibit, in that gallery with the highly instagrammable pastel wall. All thanks to my phone, we can now be everywhere and nowhere all at the same time.
Further insulating me from the dredges and doldrums of life in the 20th Century, I can wear my headphones everywhere: At the office. At Target. In the waiting room at the doctor’s. Out for runs and hikes. At the gym. On my bike. Walking to the watering hole on a Wednesday night. There is no situation that cannot be made more bearable by listening to a Spotify playlist cutely titled “Screaming Extroverted Intuition.” Matter of fact — here, you may do so, too, dearie:
You are now free from enduring the ambient hustle-and-bustle of arriving trains, chirping birds or overhearing a couple argue about who was more wasted last night in front of their children.
Our insatiable quest to optimize our every living moment leads us to constantly tinker with our surroundings — arranging our waking moments exactly according to our ethos — and, in doing so, muting the dance of discovery within ourselves and others, in much the same fashion as how GPS sucked the thrill out of road trips to new horizons.
How does that look for me? Well, I can spend a weekend lounging on my parents’ couch in the South, while texting my friends dank memes in the Northeast. I can read the latest cryptocurrency news at The Economist, while tuning out the blockchain bro sitting one stool down from me at the airport bar where you can enjoy a leisurely gin-and-soda for a cool $19, or however much that is in Ethereum. I can send weapons-grade sexts over WhatsApp while my date’s in the restroom. I can keep my options open to skip out on any scene that isn’t just perfect — a sub-par concert, a blowout baseball game, drinks with that one friend who blames everyone else for their own problems. In this space, in this time — I can be aware of everything and present for nothing.
And yet, even with all this boundless knowledge, all this potential to really get to know someone or master a craft, all this control over our social schedules and professional commitments, all this unfiltered access to other people, all this awesome power to make every situation the best it can be and maximize our happiness and success anywhere we find ourselves, we are all more sad, lonely and stagnant than ever. Study after study concludes people who use social media and smartphones the most are among the least satisfied with their lives, rank highest on measures of depression and mental illness, and it’s not truly certain yet if that relationship is causal or not.
The way we interact with our phones makes us not only obsessive tinkerers, but also compulsive watchers. We can read about 18 Productivity Hacks To Maximize Your Workday instead of actually working. We can scroll through our Instagram feeds to see what brightly colored, giant-sized pool float our friends have climbed aboard instead of taking a swim ourselves. We can go through our entire day staring into the soft blue glow of a screen, texting the same dad-jokes to friends old and new, and missing friends we could make just down the road. The closer we get to absolutely everything, the farther away we seem to drift from any one thing in particular. This is an odd Venn diagram overlapping sloth with choice paralysis, and the conflation of action with motion: we can feel like we’re doing more than ever, without building anything of real consequence. We leave the engine running all day, without even realizing we’ve been idling the entire time, yet we’re surprised when we step out of the car to realize we never left the house.
Sure, at this coordinate of space-time, I wish I could know people better. Not the people I know too well, no, but the people I genuinely enjoy. The people who’s very silence sings to me. Give me more of the woman who maps out my 72 hours in Paris — complete with recommendations for jazz and museums and aperitifs like she just fucking gets me. Give me less of those 12 men from high school I just can’t escape, who circle-jerk each other over a sturdily built breakfast nook in between shit-posts about “patriotism.”
I wish I could be closer to people. I wish I could be more present. I wish I could be more productive. I wish. And then I google “communication hacks,” “How to Practice Empathy,” “29 mindfulness strategies,” and “5 ways to build your personal brand.” It’s disgusting … I’m disgusting. I’d be better served by leaving my smartphone at home, taking grand comfort on a kayak, or just embracing the lost art of being aware, adrift in an ocean of experience, with nothing but the welcome din of chipper people and chirping birds to keep me company. Hopefully, just at that beautiful nexus between nowhere and here, I’ll resist that anxious urge to reach into my pocket, and scroll through the Instagram stories of the 180 people I follow on it. Hopefully, I won’t miss what I’m seeing just to see what I’m missing. And while looking around, sinking into the soft glow of my own being, I’ll hold four ounces of vibrant detail in a four-ounce glass, each drop meaning everything, finding the infinite inside of enough.