Discover more from The Drugs Don't Work Anymore
Who we are when we're hiding in our phones
not a cell phone in sight, just ppl enjoying the moment.
So Sally Rooney does this thing in her novels where she builds her characters around their behavior on their phones. There is, for instance, a scene with a slightly-unhappy girl who googles her ex. The exact scene I’m thinking of goes something like this:
Her hair, dark and falling loosely over her shoulders, looked clean and slightly dry. She climbed onto her bed and picked up her phone from where it lay on the sheets. For some time she scrolled through various timelines, occasionally opening and half-reading long articles about elections overseas. Her face was wan and tired.1
This continues for a bit. She googles her ex two sentences later. But I think this is part of the reason why Rooney is so frequently described as the go-to millennial novelist. Because every millennial knows the feeling of climbing into your bed, getting comfortable, and scrolling through Twitter or Instagram and half-reading stories — big stories in places like The Atlantic or The New York Times, stories that have no perceivable effect on our lives — and then googling an ex. 2 Like, that’s a real thing. Somebody, somewhere, is doing that right now, as you’re reading this.
Anyway, Sally Rooney’s last book was really the first time I was blown away by this little trick. It’s not a particularly difficult trick to pull off. But I’d never seen it done well — I’d seen it forced in a number of books — but I’d never seen it done well. I knew (everybody knows) that you can use a character’s behaviors to show their emotional state. Even little behaviors can hide an iceberg. Take these lines from a Hemingway short story:
She went over and sat in front of the mirror of the dressing table looking at herself with the hand glass. She studied her profile, first one side and then the other. Then she studied the back of her head and her neck.
You know what’s happening there. And it’s a different behavior in a different atmosphere. The woman who sits there when she’s alone in the room is a different woman than the woman who sits in front of the mirror when her husband is in the room. You put her lover in the room, and boom — it’s different again. The same is true of phones: they can act as mirrors.
What I’m getting at is that we behave on our phones. And our behavior in-concert-with our phones sometimes defines our emotional state. We’ve only recently been able to do this — to go into our phones. That’s the vernacular, by the way, you see somebody off in the corner gazing at his phone and you say he’s in his phone.
The Drugs Don't Work Anymore is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.
I set out to write a piece about how our phones act as shields to the world. And I’ve done a piss-poor job at splitting the phone as a shield metaphor. Because here’s the thing about shields — by nature, they contain two sides. There is A.) the mirror side of the shield, the side that you’re holding and B.) the other side of the shield — the one that the world sees.
This works because our phones are tiny computers. We can do anything we want on our phones.3 There’s that great Tim Robinson sketch where he shouts “if I feel like you’re getting the best of me, I have no problem being on my phone for hours and hours!” And that’s why we can use them as shields. Here’s an example: I need a new bowtie for an event this weekend.4 So, when I was half-asleep and walked into a grocery store this morning, I was on my phone, trying to find a bowtie on Amazon.
The behavior was nothing really: me holding a tiny piece of computerized metal in front of my face. But that simple behavior told the world do not engage. People saw me moving through the aisles with my phone a foot from my face and they passed me without even noticing. I became an object in the background, like the employees stocking fruit.
That’s the opposite side of the phone-as-a-shield. The people who see you when you’re into your phone. My side of the shield is different, of course. My side of the shield is about the behaviors. The people in the grocery store didn’t know what I was doing. I could have been googling an ex. I could have been reading gruesome details about the deaths of Palestinian civilians or I could have been ordering a bowtie. All they knew from my behavior — guy in his phone — is that I’m not really willing to be engaged with.
And we all know that behavior: he’s in his phone. This is a part of our world. There are even absurdities to the behavior. For instance, the person who walks through the store taking a call on speaker-phone. The person on the airplane taking a call on speaker-phone. What the actual hell is that behavior? These people are using their shields aggressively. I mean, come on, we live in a society.
I suppose this whole thing is about behaviors. The hot-new-fad of sociology — what behavior is normal? The guy on his phone as he walks through the grocery store. What conclusions do we draw about him? Do we put him down as anti-social? As a sad or happy person? Or, more likely, do we barely notice him at all?
In the actual book, the woman is on her laptop. I’ve changed it here for rhetorical purposes. You can argue that this is misadapting the text, but I’d argue that she — the character — could very well perform an identical emotional state on her phone.
I mean, this is a common behavior and it contains an emotion inside of it. I suppose it’s funny: occasionally, we all feel like pouring a glass of wine, putting up our feet and then make ourselves a bit uncomfortable by googling our exes or reading a well-researched piece in The New Yorker. Like, that’s a real millennial impulse.
Again, probably not a great thing that our phones are computers. Sometimes it feels like all the tragedies in the world are right there in your pocket, waiting for you to read about them. And sometimes, like a beginning-of-the-novel Sally Rooney character, you do read about them. There was a wonderful piece last week about how the feeling this behavior arouses is something called weltschmertz.
I’m wearing a tuxedo to the event, so I need a bowtie. I’m not one of those creeps who just goes around wearing bowties.