Technology

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
idk
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:

  1. I talk to someone in either IM, text, or email form.
  2. I then call that person on the phone.
  3. The person doesn’t answer.
  4. Even though…
  5. …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.
  6. Unless… maybe they’re caught under a boulder or an anvil or something? Like in a Wile E. Coyote cartoon?
  7. But no.
  8. They’re not.
  9. But they still don’t answer.
  10. Why am I the one who now feels like a loser for calling?
  11. When they were the one who contacted me to start with?
  12. 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.

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 radios.

Or airplanes.

Or movies.

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.

No iPhones.

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. TC mark

FOOTNOTE:

(1) We could discuss the irony of searching for a replacement girlfriend via an article on a website, when that article in question is an essay that complains about the misuse of technology, but holy sh-t, formatting footnotes on this website is hard, plus what’s that behind you? Is that something behind you? It looks like something. Just turn around and maybe check it out for yourself.

image — The Black Hole

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  • NateBag

    You may not have known how to end this, but I certainly don’t know how to respond. I may like Thai food, dunno, haven’t eaten a whole lot of it. I can say that dating men is certainly not much easier than women. Just saying.

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  • Charl

    Normally I zone out after maybe half the length of an article this size, but surprisingly I managed to read this whole article without getting distracted, kudos.

    I must admit that my favourite part was “Where are the kitten videos located?” though. Because it is pretty much the truest thing I’ve ever heard.

  • Kat

    So I’m not the only person in the world who gets hates that – I’m not responding if only to say I’m busy, but instead am just going to leave you wondering thing. But really, isn’t this just a reminder that we really need to remember how to interact with people in real reality. Or just remember that the person on the other side is a person.

  • Tony San Luis

    I spoke about this very thing, well, about technology screwing up human contact, with my neighbor who hates technology but is forced to use it to not be alienated from society. I think about this often and hurling my touch screen, Tumblr- & Instagram-scrolling device becomes more and more convincing.

  • Carmon

    I’m glad it’s not just me that finds this really frustrating and hurtful. Oh, you can’t text me back but you can update your status via your phone? And that stupid new function on facebook that tells you when someone has viewed your message, it’s like a slap in the face saying ‘yes i saw your message but your not worth replying too.’ Sometimes you just feel like not talking to people, everyone feels like that occasionally, but technology these days makes it seem like everyone is purposfully ignoring everyone else.

    In the past you could always tell yourself ‘maybe they’re not home’ or ‘maybe their phone’s dead’ etc, now days we have the clear evidence infront of us that this is not the case, yet if we point it out that’s somehow not socially acceptable?

    Ok rant over *sigh*

  • http://gravatar.com/wonderboyahoy Mike

    Interestingly enough, my boss walked up behind me right as I read the footnote…

  • http://twitter.com/stefparks Stefanie Parks (@stefparks)

    you’re funny. i think i got my first cell phone when i was in 8th grade (i’m 25 now) but my boyfriend is around your age and got his first cell phone in college. i am literally blown away by the fact that, as you said, people just said they were going to meet somewhere… and then they did. the only time i ever had to do that was in middle school when i had to tell my parents what time to pick me up at the movie theater… and they did! but meeting out, at a bar, while drunk? i just cant fathom it. i probably would have been lost or by myself all the time.

  • http://iamnaina.wordpress.com/ Naina

    IM and e-mail does not necessarily have to mean that a person is near their phone / has their phone with them. But yes you’re correct if they’ve sent you a text message. Just saying.

    :)

    Also, you wrote “IM message” on the 4th paragraph…(if I counted correctly). Should be just “IM”, yeah?

    Great post. Reminded me of this TEDTalk I watched about being connected but alone.
    http://on.ted.com/Turkle

    • http://www.facebook.com/oliveramiller Oliver Miller

      Oh god, you’re right. That’s like typing “ATM machine.” I should fix that.

      • http://iamnaina.wordpress.com/ Naina

        Yep!

      • https://thoughtcatalog.com/ Oliver Miller

        Fixed. I would have fixed it sooner, but I’m a lazy, lazy man. Also I realized that I say “ATM machine” all the time and have no issue with it, but am capable of freaking out for an hour if someone types “alright” instead of “all right.” The lesson being that we all have our little grammatical pet peeves, I guess.

  • Jmilz

    I loved this article! Well done and I concur. I also like Thai food but I am sure that is completely coincidental. ;)

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  • http://chopsticklady.wordpress.com fringster

    When I was in elementary we also didn’t have cellphones but I like it – you get to trust people.

  • http://krymeariver.com krymeariver

    I love this essay. I know the statement EVERYTHING GOES BAD is pessimistic but there is such thing as too much of a good thing. And I would never break up with someone in an IM. What is that? Using the excuse that i’m being a girl is stupid and makes women look bad. God ahead and se x me up in this comment. I could use some action even if its on a message board which is technically technology…

  • http://centerofthecookie.com Christine

    I thought this was a great essay, maybe the best one I’ve read on TC in months.

    This could be the literary nerd in me, but the fact that you ended it so abruptly and off-topic seemed like the easy way out. I want to read what you have to say when you finish this whole thought cycle through, although I know how difficult of an end that might be to reach. Thanks for supplying me with a substantial piece of writing though, it was much appreciated!

    Also, I hope despite everything in your personal life you managed to somewhat enjoy your birthday!

  • http://twitter.com/TSadow Tess

    Read some Vonnegut. Embrace being a luddite–find solstice in fellow luddites.

  • melanie

    great essay. i’ve thought a lot recently about how technology has impoverished our ability to communicate with each other in meaningful ways and have TRIED to distance myself from it when i can- it can, as you say, make us very needy but also really self-involved and impatient. you would think that we might communicate better because we can do it so immediately and so efficiently, but we’re really just learning to interact with digital representations of each other, often strategically constructed and almost always inauthentic. sorry to hear that your ex didn’t have the heart or decency to break up with you (on your birthday no less) in person. wtf? people are becoming so cowardly.

    i need a new boyfriend, but geographic distance might make our dating difficult. ;) haha.

  • http://lionhairedgirl.wordpress.com Lion

    this is absolutely fantastic.

  • Stacey

    I think much has already been said about the subject of technological alienation, but you manage to add some interesting anecdotes to the discussion. I liked your point about craving some sort of confrontation, in the form of face-to-face interaction, even if its negative. At least that way, someone is acknowledging your existence… anything is better than that dead (digital) silence.

    I also think its funny (not really funny… bleakly amusing maybe) that the basic thesis is “Everything becomes bad, eventually…” but the essay concludes by asking for dates. Are you looking for an existential dating experience? Someone to feel bored and alienated and technologically frustrated with (while eating Thai food)?

  • http://gravatar.com/mztoribelle mztoribelle

    brilliant piece.

  • http://theangryingenue.wordpress.com Io

    You’re complaining about not having enough human contact, but then you ask why you have to have dinner with your girlfriend’s parents. Obviously, for human contact. Some people like seeing their parents and having their boyfriend there.

    As for people not picking up their phones, we are all at burnout point when it comes to being accessible. It’s tiring and draining to always be available to anyone who wants to reach us, which, most of the time, they can. That’s something new, and we build up artificial barriers to protect ourselves. Sure, ignoring too many phone calls is cowardly, but it’s the direct result of constant information overload. We’re just tired of all the noise.

  • 1809

    For once, an actual catalog of thoughts, and an interesting musing on technology.

    All I really want to do now is throw a message in a bottle into the sea and wait for it to be found…

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