by Marie Gaglione
I’m freaking out almost all the time, I’d say. I wouldn’t even limit my angst to my waking hours, because lately my dreamscapes have been rife with post-apocalyptic battle royale scenarios. I’m not writing this with any kind of proposed solution or discernible purpose beyond adding another frightened voice to the void, I just don’t think I can write about anything else until I work through some of this. I find that crafting my fears into essays works as a kind of filing system: I’m still afraid of the thing, but now there is a title and and my thoughts are at least ordered by paragraphs.
This essay is about technology, probably. I waffle on the theme only because I think blaming existential panic on cell phones is stale, but I’m pretty sure it’s accurate! Let me make my case. I’ve opened Mario Kart Mobile Tour on my phone three times since starting to write this and I’m not yet on my third paragraph. And I’ve already raced all the races and gotten enough stars to pass each cup. And I still keep opening the app. This week it’s Mario Kart, but before that it was Love Island The Game and before that it was Tamagotchi (and Solitaire and Candy Crush and and and). I don’t have a Twitter and I rarely open Instagram so presumably the games are just the most enticing apps I have, but it’s still gross how long I spend with my shoulders tightened, neck tensed, and thumbs exercising. I feel like a loser. And I justify all the time, pretending like I’m having such deep thoughts in the background as I throw red turtle shells. I try to map life onto the racing track; I look for metaphors as I complete a lap and am satisfied with exercising the poetic side of my brain for the day.
We’re living in a world of infinite content. I tire of one game, there are eight hundred more with subtle variations. I finish a TV show, the streaming network has thirty more recommendations. Every movie, every show, every clip or song or soundbite – it’s all within reach if you can connect to the internet. Which now you can do even on an airplane. I’m worried about it.
How much does our infinite content coerce us into being infinitely content? There’s hardly ever a reason to go for a walk or catch up with a friend or write an essay you consistently delay writing in favor of a more compelling entertainment opportunity. We need not ever sit with our thoughts, which is why I frequently don’t, even when my thoughts reflect the fear behind my evasion.
I make it a personal goal to be un-borable. I look up close at leaves; I study the intricacies of rocks; I imagine that I could pause time if I’m lacking in natural inspiration. But I never really have to be bored at all, just complacent. Complacency is spending the day looking at screened entertainment. Everything we could ever want to know is at our fingertips. I don’t know how to exist in this world, I don’t know how any of us are supposed to. And I don’t think it’s slowing down either; if you listen to Elon Musk or pay any attention to the way we communicate with our technology, you know that our systems for input are only accelerating. Where once we found a book or flipped through an encyclopedia, we then had to type (from all of our fingers to just our thumbs), and now we can just ask: “hey siri,” “hey google,” “hey alexa.” The next logical development is linking our limbic systems, which I don’t necessarily intend to encourage researching, because ever since I looked into it I’ve had a harder time falling asleep.
I remember when the first iPhone came out. It was 2007. I was eleven years old. My dad was still married to my stepmom. She got one first and spent hours a day playing the most basic iterations of the games that would eventually outright augment reality. My dad clung to his flip-phone for a few months until, for his birthday, he got that thick, sleek, beautiful, poisonous black mirror. I recall so clearly my stepmom saying “say goodbye to your dad.” He laughed it off. That was ten years before he had two iPhones, one of which he called his “batphone” (a general word of caution: people shouldn’t really need two phones, especially if one isn’t designated specifically to be a work phone.) That was eleven years before he went to jail, where he now does not have a smart phone and has instead read over 200 books since he was incarcerated almost a year ago. I don’t feel like analyzing that timeline, just including it as notable personal background.
I’ve been thinking a lot about consumption versus production and input versus output. Probably being around the fuck-it mentality of late nights, binge drinking, and rash decion-making that characterize the college student headspace is partially to blame, but I think I’m a bit of a hedonist. I have an inclination towards instant gratification and my alliances almost always fall with having a good time. I like to think of myself as someone who does what I want when I want so long as those things don’t occur at the expense of others, but I think I’m also starting to see the point of moderation. For the longest time I couldn’t accept self-denial as a means of personal growth (a knee-jerk reaction to being a cradle Catholic, I think) but putting my phone down in favor of being more present seems like a good place to start. I’m interested in the idea that living on my own (no parents, no rules, as we say) has prompted this change in philosophy.
It’s nearly counter-intuitive, to begin exercising discipline now that I’m strictly-speaking less accountable to an external source of it. But I suspect, I hope, that since it’s coming from myself I am more likely to pursue this newfound interest in living moderately. I want to consume less and produce more. I can sense my headspace shifting; the drive to create and be a source of output is becoming increasingly overwhelming. As it grows, so too does my uneasiness with the sort of mindless swiping I once relished. I’m not sitting still as much. I’m trying to do instead of watch, to play outside instead of on my phone, to be less passive in my passions. It’s hard, because the alternative is easy. And the hedonist in me loves easy. But the artist in me – who is inextricably tied to the hedonist – is getting restless. Which is my point, I think. I’m not going to post this essay and delete Mario Kart, but I’m going to feel my own scrutiny harder because I’ve written it down. I want to judge myself more, in a kind way, that permits and forgives, but that also demands action. I detest passivity and won’t allow it to be my security blanket. And if reading any of this makes you (a broad, hypothetical you) feel similarly, I invite you to let in those feelings of tech-based restlessness. Ultimately, I’m writing this for myself and my own forward progress, and I never intend to sound preachy, but if anyone goes outside instead of sitting on the couch as a result of my words, that would make me pretty happy too.