I love my iPhone.
Don’t I? Maybe I’m just addicted to it. I’ve certainly been known to display some of the signs of addiction … or obsession, at the very least: fidgeting with it, taking it out to look at for no particular reason, spinning it on the table, or just gazing distractedly at it as I poorly uphold my half of the conversation, keeping an eye on it while it just sits there, generally glittering.
But it really is an amazing device. Every time I think of leaving it behind and going out on the town free of my digital tether, I wonder: what amazing snapshot, video clip, instant price comparison, or timely, indispensable definition will I find myself wanting for this time? So maybe it’s a bit complicated: let’s call it a little from column A and a little from column B.
Either way, I felt a most peculiar twinge as I slid it from my pocket one evening in June, perhaps a bit more vigorously than was entirely necessary, and watched its oh-so-smooth and beguiling form slip out of my fingers and ride a grand arc in slow motion through the air to land with an acrobat’s precision on its very Achilles heel, the edge where glass meets metal. I’d dropped the thing about a hundred times before, but I knew right away that this one would be different. I scooped it up off the ground with a totally pointless nimbleness and fluidity, as if to compensate for the embarrassing fumble, or who knows, to save a shred of dignity in case anyone had been watching, and as I took in the truly beautiful lattice of tiny fractures that had suddenly leapt across my screen, I felt myself injected with an intense gamut of conflicting emotions. I was not just ambivalent. I was polyvalent.
Once the moment’s immediate micro-anguish and embarrassment were well behind me, I began to make an effort to glean whatever of value the experience might be offering. I’m not talking about finding the silver lining here, or calling something Shinola that, well, simply ain’t. I’m talking about the waiting. The sitting still and watching as, one by one, the well-concealed insights of a small but unpleasant collision begin to appear and reluctantly present themselves. Despite the urge to rush out and replace or repair it, I decided to wait awhile. This new screen design, I decided, would become my Unnecessary iPhone Access Filter (UiAF, for all you acronym fiends). More than a month later, I have to report that it’s been performing really well in that capacity. Whenever I find myself simply unable to wait another moment for that hilarious fail video, to check my e-mail for the twelfth time in an hour, or even to get back to Buckminster Fuller’s Everything I Know on YouTube, the mesh pattern of opaque strands lancing across my screen sets me back for a beat.
Is that really what you need to be doing at this very moment? Is the air around you, the people, the view, the silence, really so inadequate, so unbearable that it must be escaped? Or, to borrow a line from a Zen master, “What in this moment is lacking?” Generally, the answers are no, and no, and nothing. And then I have to laugh at myself: at how atrophied has become my patience in this climate of perpetual consumption, everything all of the time, and above all else, no waiting. And to smile wryly at myself, for all of the ways in which I’ve taken the bait; at how dull and poor and weak become all of my experiences, whenever they are each nothing more than another blip in the stream of constant noise, light, action, sound and smell. In the absence of lack, it would seem, plenty itself becomes invested with lack, hollowed out by the the real vacuity, the nothingness which can never truly be banished or evaded.
The matter continues to perplex me. I will replace the screen eventually, I expect, despite my reservations. The art it helps me to make, the people it helps me to contact, to say nothing of just the plain fun it provides, finally outweigh the risk of the thing, at least for the time being. But the occasion to reflect upon it has helped to clarify for me the boundary line between use and abuse, between using the thing and being used by the thing. Much as I might like to ignore the fact, it’s true here as elsewhere: that which offers me access to everything also offers everything access to me, and it’s never been more important or more difficult to tease out where the one turns into the other, where the tide turns. And when we ourselves become the agents of all the various voices vying for our attention, then we have given up the contest without struggle. The conclusion will all have been foregone. I did some musing on the subject in a recent morning free-write, and I’ve attached below a few of the more interesting notions that washed up, in their cleaned and dressed form.
“There is the matter of the cracked iPhone screen. I feel conflicted about it. In some respects, it feels like a chance to get moving on into the newer gen, to get my video project going in earnest. On the other hand, it feels like an opportunity to cut back the thing’s influence on me. I have been frustrated for some time by what might be described as its intrusion into my life. To be sure, it’s an amazing tool, offering a seemingly limitless list of tasks it can perform, treasures it can deliver. But this is, in a way, the real problem with it. It tends to become the universal solution machine. And its power as objet d’art, fetish, totem, shouldn’t be ignored either. It is, after all, not only a beautiful piece (endowed with an elegance comparable to that displayed by the Zippo, for example, when it first appeared) and a powerful tool, but it is also a symbol of affluence and taste, a not-so-secret handshake for the club of smart, tech-savvy gadgeteers. It’s equal parts technology and accoutrement, really, the IT-thing for the techcessorizing crowd. But what explains it sway over us, really, at bottom? Why must we constantly be pulling it out? Why does it own our focus?
A host of reasons present themselves: sometimes, obviously, to communicate; to learn things, for necessity or curiosity. Sometimes, we must admit, to feel its weight, to enjoy its smooth, seamless design. And then sometimes, simply as a prop. A thing to play with, to appear busy and not idle, not at loose ends, not bored. And often, we pull it out to discover why it is that we are pulling it out. Maybe we are bored, or can’t remember what it was that we had meant to do, or whether we were trying to do anything at all. We pull it out by habit, mostly, or out of reliance on the simplest answer (or that which appears most simple), the closest nexus which offers us access to the widest array of answers, questions we hadn’t yet thought to ask, seems to let us command or else traverse cities all over the world, allows us to gaze with telescopically augmented retina into deep space, lets us collect the definitions of rare flowers, or imaginary cities, or secret societies. It offers all of this, and it rides around in our pockets.
This truly is a bijou, a talisman, the reigning token or standard of modern technology, successor to the computer, the telephone, the automobile, the Zippo. So we pull it out to find out from it why it is that we are pulling it out; because it has answered all of our other questions. We gaze into it with expectation or curiosity, and sure enough, it gives us an answer, whether inspiring, or hypnotizing, or lobotomizing. And then we are occupied. It does bring us the world, or a mosaic of the world. But everything it brings to us, it brings to us in a tiny rectangle. It’s the pinhole aperture, the keyhole in the door of the world, through which we peer, transfixed by what we see, but always also maddened by what we must be missing in the periphery. A scrying stone, softly backlit. And the world it delivers to us itself becomes miniature, replaceable, sucked dry of grandeur. That vista it brings us, no matter how staggering its actual scope may be, no sooner has it arrived than it becomes commonplace, already familiar, and almost immediately, a nuisance, in danger of blocking up the queue, clogging the channel, and making us miss the next three things.
Whatever else it does: it surely banishes all reflection and solitude, and deadens awareness of the body and everything going on around it. This seems reason enough to keep a close eye on it, to keep it on a leash, instead of vice-versa; or better yet, to bind it in a tiny oubliette. A bag, the Crown Royal bag, I think, within another bag. Yes. That will be my method.”
Well, that about wraps up my reflections for the moment. Anyone else want to share? What’s the climate of your relationship with your smartphone? And do you ever get the eerie feeling that it’s working against you?