When my phone chimed to tell me I had a text, I felt a little thrill of anticipation. It would it be a joke or a witty observation from one of my far-flung friends, a pick-me-up to enjoy at lunch during a long and grueling day of graduate school. I flipped open my phone, eager to see the digital dispatch. Notice that verbiage…I flipped it open. It was 2016 and I still had a flip phone. Texts were one of its most advanced capabilities. And they really had to be texts. Pictures appeared as a pixelated whirl of colors, not unpleasing, but completely unrecognizable. The text was a threat from my phone company. They would no longer be supporting my ancient phone and I would need to upgrade to what they referred to, euphemistically it seemed to me, as a “device.”
This had happened to me before. When I’d had to start typing my papers, rather than writing them by hand. When films stopped appearing on VHS tapes, necessitating the acquisition of a DVD player. When everyone had to get cable or get a box if they wanted to watch television. When local record stores started closing their doors, citing iTunes and other digital music platforms as the reason. I had been forced to spend money to replace things that had never been problematic many times before, and this latest instance was particularly galling. I was attending graduate school at Berkeley and doing my capstone project for my Master of Public Policy degree in San Francisco. I was in the belly of the tech beast, constantly surrounded by people who made more money developing solutions to these non-problems than I ever would as a policy analyst tackling very real problems.
I went to lunch in a huff, passing the corporate headquarters of Uber on my way to buy my food in a market located in the same building as Twitter’s corporate headquarters. I made a completely unnecessary call on my flip phone, just to shake my fist at the tech gods in some small way.
On my way back home that night, I looked around at my fellow BART riders reading on their phones and started thinking rationally. I had to admit that as much as these forced upgrades annoyed me, they had usually made my life better. There was always an hour or two of boredom and frustration spent downloading and installing various things and figuring out how some new program or tool worked, but the amount of time it saved later was usually vast. In graduate school, I frequently used statistical software to run regressions and t-tests. With a line of code and a tap of the enter key, I could do something that would have once taken a year of mind-numbing drudgery and number crunching. I could rearrange some paragraphs in my thesis with a few minutes of cutting and pasting rather than hours of tapping typewriter keys or replacing failing fountain pens. I could keep in touch with friends scattered around the world through quick notes exchanged on Facebook and watch short comedy videos on YouTube when I needed a break from the grad school grind. Paying people back or getting paid back no longer involved complicated efforts to find exact change with PayPal and Venmo. And who could deny that picking people up at the airport or finding friends in a crowd was much easier with a cell phone?
I still felt a little defeated when I joined a group that included my 80-something grandmother and got a smart phone about a week after finishing graduate school. A month after purchasing this thing that I still caught myself side-eyeing with suspicion, I discovered what all the fuss was about. Before driving back from California to start my job in Washington D.C., I spent a week in Los Angeles. As I descended from the mountains into the churn of our nation’s second largest city, it hit me: I had no idea where I was going. I was completely dependent on this tiny, synthetic bundle of plastic and metal and microchips next to me. “Show me why I paid so much money to get you,” I growled at my copilot, perched at the ready on the passenger seat. It accepted my challenge and passed with flying colors. It deftly guided me to my friend’s place, telling me which lane I should get into and looking for routes that would avoid as many of LA’s famed traffic snarls as possible. I thought about a Thomas Wolfe story I had read once called “Only the Dead Know Brooklyn,” about how it would take a lifetime to get to know the length and breadth of the borough where I had once lived. By the time you finally figured it out, you’d be at death’s door. I thought about how our tiny, little phones were rendering this reasoning obsolete and about all the younger adults, born only a few years after me, who would never know the feeling of being lost as they sailed along the highways and byways of an unfamiliar city or country.
The friend who I was staying with in LA was typically busy during the day, so I entertained myself, checking destination after destination off my must-see list. I discovered I didn’t even need to know their addresses. I just had to know their names and the phone did the rest. I had always assumed a smart phone would take the adventure out of life, because everything would be instantly researchable. I quickly found out that it actually facilitated adventures, because I didn’t need to know where I was going in advance so I could look up directions. I no longer had to spread my paper map open before me, announcing to all that I was a stranger in this land. I didn’t need to find creative ways to affix written directions to my car’s ceiling so I could see where I had to make the next turn without taking my eyes off the road anymore. It still infuriated me, the way people would head to Yelp rather than just trying a restaurant, or drift into their digital world, mid-conversation, but this! This was nice, I thought as I drove the hitherto unknown route from Culver City to Silver Lake with all the confidence of Philip Marlow following a case on his home turf in the city of angels.
As this story might suggest, I am not a technophobe in the classic sense. I am a technophobe in a uniquely millennial way. I am not at all interested in tech, but it has completely and totally infiltrated my life. I use it at work and at home and on my way from one of these places to the other. I wouldn’t feel confident fact-checking the dialogue on Silicon Valley, but I still love the show, which I watch on my computer rather than on a television set. I’m an avid Facebooker, and I eagerly check in with geographically-distant friends on social media, even if I occasionally have to look up what TFW or TL;DR means to understand what some of the younger ones are talking about. To be more specific still, I am a technophobe in a uniquely Xennial way. Although I’ve never encountered someone who actually likes this term, it seems to be gaining steam as the common moniker for those of us born in the early ’80s who remember the pre cell-phone and social media world of dial up modems, watching television shows at their appointed times, and calling our friend’s houses and having their parents answer. In articles on the subject, it is often said that we experienced an analogue childhood and a digital adulthood, although I can’t find the original source of this apt turn of phrase. As a member of this mini-generation, lost somewhere in the ether between true Gen-Xers and Millennials, I feel like the Colossus at Rhodes, standing astride some kind of digital divide under which gigabytes and megabytes fly and web currents flow, attuned to sound of Twitterings and Internet breakings, but capable of tuning it out to stay focused on a single thing for more than five seconds.
You can’t be a fully functioning adult denizen of the modern world without being an adopter and I do see the advantages of new ways of doing things. I’d probably still be lost in the hills above Los Angeles to this day if I hadn’t had my phone to guide me. But I still hate the element of coercion, the feeling of adopt or die. And I don’t think I’ll ever enjoy the process of figuring out how to use new tech. And I will always mourn some of the old ways. I miss when being a fan of something required effort. When you had to save up all your money to buy import-only magazines and records, or take the train into the nearest city to see an art film. Now all the information is available and easily accessible on the Internet and all the products are a part time job and a button click away on Amazon or iTunes. I miss going to actual physical record stores and book stores and flipping through stacks of material, feeling at the same time like I was part of a club with the other customers and shop employees. I miss talking to people the day after a season finale or premier, knowing we were all in front of our television watching it at the same time the night before. And I don’t see why I should bother figuring out how to use Uber or Lyft, or why these things even exist, when we can all just hail a cab, no muss, no fuss. Most of all, I miss spending time with people without a smart phone in between us.