So today is my birthday. Yesterday, I got a message from my girlfriend, except she was probably already my ex-girlfriend, but anyway, when I woke up, after leaving my computer on all night, with the screen open, the following message was waiting for me–
HER: i don’t know if i should come down
it’ll just make me miss you more, and we’re breaking up
i’ll think about it
“IMs are weird,” I thought. It’s like having a half-written essay by someone facing you when you wake up. When have humans ever interacted in this way before in human history? The closest equivalent to an IM is your roommate leaving a note for you, attached by a magnet to the refrigerator: “YOUVE GOT TO START MOPPING THE KITCHEN GODAMMIT.” Which is really never pleasant. But that’s really the only concept for receiving a casual, open-ended written communication like that.
So I wrote back–
ME: huh what?
HER: i’m being a girl
…Thousands of thoughts flooded into my head instantly. Like, what? So my girlfriend is being “a girl”? Also: do I have to keep dating girls? …For how long? For how long must we sing this song? If I could just be gay I could date guys. But I can’t be gay, but if I could, oh god, what an amazing dream that would be.
Anyway, so the import of the IM was that my (ex-)girlfriend wasn’t going to see me for my birthday. This was acceptable. I could acceptably deal with this; it wasn’t like I was going to turn into a crazy ex-boyfriend like in Sleeping With the Enemy or something. So I called her on the phone. She didn’t answer. I then either had a startling epiphany or a nervous breakdown, depending on your point of view. It occurred to me that this always happens. I don’t have an iPhone and was born in like the year 1920 or something (we’ll get to that in a second), so these things don’t instinctively occur to me, but then it occurred to me that this always happens, and not necessarily in the context of being broken up with. What happens is:
- I talk to someone in either IM, text, or email form.
- I then call that person on the phone.
- The person doesn’t answer.
- Even though…
- …Even though, and this is the weird part, they were clearly on their phone, have their phone on their person, have their phone within no further than a 0.5 second reaching distance away from them, because the IM, text, or email also clearly indicated that they were on their phone.
- Unless… maybe they’re caught under a boulder or an anvil or something? Like in a Wile E. Coyote cartoon?
- But no.
- They’re not.
- But they still don’t answer.
- Why am I the one who now feels like a loser for calling?
- When they were the one who contacted me to start with?
- This way madness lies.
I find this all to be odd, and I realize that not everyone wants to talk on the phone all the time. But what happens is that this can recur for days and days. You find yourself asking questions like: “Are these people really my friends?” Which is maybe the most common question of the internet era, besides “Where are the kitten videos located?”
I realize that not everyone is available all the time, but I also realize that this seems to be happening more and more. The other day, a girl IMed me. “Call me!” she said. So I called her. What a tool, I know. She had done this before. This always happens. I did it as an experiment, just automatically calling because I wanted to confirm how hard it would be for her to pick up if I actually called her. You don’t need to know the rest of this story, because you already know the rest of this story.
As a writer, I would be happier maybe living on the coast of the sea somewhere. Ignoring the part where I’d instantly die if that happened, yes. But I’ve always felt like I’d be happier living on the coast of some deserted Pacific island somewhere, occasionally scribbling down a thought on a piece of paper, rolling that piece of paper up, stuffing it into a bottle, and throwing it into the surf for the world to one day find and one day maybe read. …However.
I do occasionally like to talk to other people, and what is currently happening is making me like talking to them less. Of course there is no major cure for this, but my job as a literary sort of writer is not to come up with a cure. My job as a literary sort of writer is to merely accurately describe what is happening.
I’m 35, turning 36, and I was originally going to write about how technology has changed so much in my lifetime. And then I remembered my great-grandmother. My first piece of published writing was written about my great-grandmother. It was zeroxed and stapled and published in a ‘zine. Because I was 15. Because the internet didn’t exist yet then, so if you had a “thought” that you wanted to, say, “catalog,” then you actually had to type it, put it on paper, and staple that paper, then walk or drive somewhere to leave that stapled paper for strangers to find.
So I was going to write about how much technology has changed since then, but then I thought about my great-grandmother’s life.
When my great-grandmother was born, there were no cars.
Or air-conditioners. (Which is the greatest invention on this list, by the way.)
Or telephones, even, really — or they did technically exist, but only the three richest people in America owned one.
…By the time my great-grandmother died, she had seen movies with computer graphics with space ninjas fighting with space laser swords before they blew up space stations that could blow up planets.
So things changed a lot for my great-grandma.
Technology is obviously accelerating at a faster and faster rate. So though things obviously changed a lot for my grandmother, I have lived through things changing at a very weirdly speeded-up rate.
And then I started thinking about new technology.
I graduated from college in 1998.
We didn’t have cell phones in college.
We didn’t have the internet in college. (Or we did, but it was slow and unusable, and so only about two people who were insane and who are probably now millionaires used it.)
We didn’t have the internet when I was in college.
No smart phones.
No search engines.
The thing that kills me — which is semi-surprising — but the lack of cell phones is what kills me the most, in retrospect. How did that work? How did we even meet? I can’t even remember, but I was still 18 at the time, so I should remember, but it all seems completely foreign to me now. Apparently you called on the phone and said something like “Meet me at the corner of 33rd and R Street in Georgetown and we’ll go to that bar.” And then people just did it. We were so trusting that we actually just had to trust that people would show up. Back then, there was no way to back out of engaging in human interaction and human affairs. Which seems so weird and… retro… now.
Technology leads to alienation, as many bad sci-fi movies have taught us. But that’s too easy. (We’ll get to that in a second.)
When I call a good friend or someone I have had sex with recently, and they can’t manage to respond, when I know that they have at least four ways to respond (email, text, phone, IM…), then it hurts me in a weird existential way. It’s not that I’m so needy, although maybe knowing that we can talk to people whenever, at any given second, has made us more needy in a perverse sort of way. But what we’re learning is that technology is awful. What we’re learning is that technology is making us feel more lonely.
If I say to my girlfriend, “hey are you coming over for my birthday?” and she says, “no, because here’s why, because I never liked you, because you sucked at sex the whole time!!!” or something, well, that’s still actual human contact. It requires bravery! It requires humor and effort! In fact, if anyone ever said that to me, I’d be like “Holy sh-t you are the coolest person ever.”
But on the other hand, if I ask my girlfriend if she’s coming over, and she just disappears into the ether, while I know that she’s available to reply at any second, that’s much worse. It’s much meaner that any actual mean thing that someone could say, if you think about it.
I remember the first time I ever got a cell phone. I was with my friend Tiana. We thought it was so crazy to have a portable phone in our hands. We called everyone we knew.
I remember the first time that I had a workable version of the internet. I searched excitedly for nine hours, learning about stupid stuff, sure — Japanese cartoons and things — but learning about things that I had never been able to learn about before, because there had been no availability for that type of investigation before.
Now, I use cell phones to duck phone calls, just like the people that I’m complaining about.
Now, I use the internet to update political sites while procrastinating about doing my writing. I update the sites continually, and then get annoyed and depressed where there isn’t new info at, say, 6 p.m. on a Sunday.
But it’s not just about technology, it’s like this with everything. Which is the scarier conclusion, really.
The first time that you meet someone that you really really like, and you’re chatting them up at, say, a party, your response is this: “My god, I can’t believe that this person is talking back to me.” Because you literally believe that the object of your affection will be like: “You thought that I’d actually be willing to converse with you, scumbag? …Guards!” …And then you get jumped by the guards.
By the 1,809th time that you talk to that person, you’re like: “Jesus, do we really have to meet your parents for Thai food?”
The first time you use a cell phone, it’s like magic. By the 1,809th time, well, we covered that already.
So I guess the thesis of this essay is: “Everything becomes bad, eventually.” Which really would be the thesis of every essay if we were honest about it. Though that would make it harder to get picked up by Buzzfeed or The Daily Beast, if that was your thesis: “Things become bad.”
Or maybe it’s not that. Or maybe I’m just depressed and need a new girlfriend. …God, what if this is just an essay about me whining about that? In which case I’ve said nothing. Which seems fairly likely. …So, fine. So I will use the remainder of this essay to advertise for a new girlfriend.¹ So, the rest of this essay is addressed to a girl that I haven’t met yet.
So, future girlfriend, please tell me why we should date by leaving a comment in the comment section. (Also, how did you like the essay so far? Is it going well, do you think?) Also, please leave a brief ontological defense of the universe and an explanation of why I have to meet your parents for Thai food after the 1,809th time. Also, I would like to say here that I do actually really like Thai food. A lot. …In fact, I have many interests, o future girlfriend of mine. …In fact, I like many of the same things that you do. You know that thing that you like? Statistically speaking there is a 70% chance that I like it too. Anyway, give me your reasons for letting me sex you up in the comment section, and thank you, since I couldn’t really think of how to end this essay anyway.