At Home, Alone
Notes from Middle America
It’s seven in the morning the weekend before Thanksgiving and I’m in a busy terminal at LAX waiting for a flight to Omaha. Finding a seat at my gate, I can’t help but be overwhelmed by the masses of people utterly glued to their phones all around me. It’s not so much the technology itself that’s bothering me, but rather the sinking feeling I get when thinking about the algorithmic content cycles everyone is undoubtedly stuck in. Perhaps those from a previous generation would scoff at my Luddism and remind me how boring it was to wait in an airport before smartphones. But still, I ask myself, which is better: unending streams of optimized content or reading the newspaper and chatting with someone next to you? Putting aside my romanticized nostalgia, I remind myself that each generation feels this type of shock when encountering the spread of new technology at scale.
Airports are possibly the best place to observe the tech-use habits of the average person though. Where burying your face in your phone might be a faux pas in other public settings, the lack of alternatives in an airport terminal melts that social pretense. I ask myself if this is society at its most honest. This is what we all do behind closed doors or just before bed, isn’t it? But it’s okay because no one can see us and anyway we keep a book on our bedside table to appear like we’re the type of person who reads before bed. It’s either that or airports are a live simulation of the effects of a truly cultureless space.
Regardless, I’m feeling decidedly weirded out by how engrossed everyone is in their little glass worlds. Taking a stance, I reach down to get my book out of my bag. As I do, the three children glued to iPads next to me look over inquisitively, their father’s eyes flit momentarily from his phone to my book and back again. I’m reading an American history book and the author is talking about the effect of a new technology that allowed revolutionary ideas to percolate through the thirteen colonies: the printing press.
We’re in the air now and the wifilessness has started to set in around me. Without social media, the woman in the middle seat begins to browse all the other apps on her phone. After swiping around for a bit, she settles on scrolling through her photos. I turn the page to see a reproduced 19th-century political cartoon that wouldn’t be out of place on a meme page.
Omaha is the closest city and airport to where my mother lives, which is over the border in Iowa on a small plot of land surrounded by industrial farms. They moved to the country to get away from the phantoms of The City, to get in touch with real America; living out some version of Jefferson’s yeoman farmer life. Amongst the chickens and cows and pigs, taking root like the many weeds that go unpicked, something new has sprung up in their American utopia: ubiquitous technology.
Cyborgs of the newest type, my mother and her husband hardly ever take out their Bluetooth headphones. Their smartwatches chime when an Amazon package arrives at the farm gate. The Alexa tablet listens in and gently displays suggested news and songs. Headphones on and glowing glass in hand, my mother’s conservative husband complains about San Fransisco and liberal elites. I turn on the light in the bathroom and a voice emanates from the ceiling. As the calm robotic voice reads me an audiobook my mom yells from the kitchen that her phone always automatically connects to their shower fan/Bluetooth speaker combo and that she’ll disconnect it so I can shower. I haven’t changed the filter in my showerhead for five years and I keep forgetting to get a drain catch for my hair.
My two Brothers and I have come out to celebrate a combination of Thanksgiving and Christmas. It’s the type of thing you do when your family lives between northern Maine and southern California and getting everyone in one place at the same time happens once a year if you’re lucky. Celebrating both holidays early, and together, reveals how easy it is the load the holiday program. I’m especially excited to spend time with the Mainard’s 18-month-old son who I haven’t seen since he was only a few days old. He doesn’t really understand Christmas yet, but he likes the train engine ornament his mother just hung up. He takes to playing with an old metal toy truck at the base of the artificial tree. Framed by the glowing string lights and green bristles, he’s a vision of Americana.
On the farm, the little boy functions as an organic anti-technology tool. As he runs through the house phones are put down and screens turned off. His parents aren’t allowing him to watch TV or see a digital screen until he’s at least five, they tell me. It’s almost a personal affront to my mother who urgently wants to expose him to the classic Rankin/Bass animated Christmas movies. Phones never out of hand, the week is filled with many apologies as a screen makes its way in front of my nephew’s eyes. With the prohibition lifted nightly after he’s asleep, everyone’s technology flares up. Little islands of light in the darkening evening, the immobile bodies mark a clear overcorrection. I think about how in the past children were a symbol of youth. Their energy and purity made us feel young, less jaded. Now, this one at least, seems to be the last barrier between pre and post-humanity.
The first time I came to this farm, almost a decade ago, after dinner we all sat around the table and played Cards Against Humanity. Asked to come up with off-color phrases, we all laughed together. Now, the occasional laugh pops up in this or that corner of the house as some algorithmic performance elicits a cheap response. Seeing everyone retreat into their phones I try hard not to. I look out the window, pet the dogs, read my book. I try not to judge them, it’s cold outside and after a certain point, there isn’t a lot to do on a rural farm. Feeling decidedly out of the context of the scrollers, I settle for watching Die Hard. My mother suggested putting it on since it is a Christmas movie after all. It’s a movie whose brash cowboy main character is derided throughout by references to the degradation of American culture by another new technology: film (more specifically, Hollywood movies).
Next day standing on the porch taking in the chilly morning air over coffee, my brothers and I don’t so much talk about the news as which internet personality tells it to us. For some reason, I wince at the mention of the content creator they mention, and then in retort mention the ones I heard my viewpoint from. Through the glass door, I see my mother’s husband put a “Liberals Getting Owned” video onto the TV that sits on top of their refrigerator. My mother scrolls quietly with a headphone in her ear after feeding the dogs. It’s only when put up against the reality of the ubiquitous new media structure that it feels like something has gone astray. Trying to relate, I suggest another person I listen to for news that they’ve both never heard of. Never is our uncommon culture felt more in the lack of a shared narrative between your own blood. The connective experience is there but the meta text through which we experience it is fractured.
Another night another movie. Keeping up the Christmas illusion, I suggested Home Alone. As I watch, the others feign attention by pointing their bodies in the direction of the television while looking down at their small screens. My mother, showing incredible adaptability to the media age to come, still reacts and laughs at the comedic beats. As I’m the only one really watching, I wonder if she’s laughing for me or if it’s a force of habit, a program running in the background. Watching both the young boy and the robbers get frightened by the black and white gangster movie, I think of the mythic story of first-time moviegoers running out of the theater after seeing the Lumiere Brothers train coming at them full steam ahead. We’re not running anymore, we’re simply averting our eyes.
Coming in from the barn with a handful of freshly laid chicken eggs of all colors I hear my mother and her husband in a tense moment. Ever caring, she says, “Do you need some scroll time?” “No,” he responds sharply. As she comes into the kitchen the muffled sounds of clipped social media videos stream in behind her from the corner of the living which he’s turned into a makeshift man cave, complete with a replica model of the leg lamp from A Christmas Story. Looking for some self-soothing of my own, I take my phone out. There isn’t much to do because I’ve deleted all my social media apps while I’m out here. Airplane mode on the ground; stuck on the runway with my little nephew.
Giving thanks, we do our thanking and giving by giving one another a meal the day before actual Thanksgiving on our pre-Thanksgiving Thanksgiving (and Christmas) family trip. Meal preparation program loaded, everyone is busy all morning and early afternoon completing their tasks. Like any software, there are occasional bugs and glitches, but fixes are deployed in the form of a giggling baby boy surrounded by family helping his grandmother roll pie dough. This program doesn’t leave room for idle hands, not a moment to spare for scrolling, everyone’s ears and eyes must be alert. For now, the technology fades into the background. Give it another day and we’ll be back to the occasional Facetime call to make sure we all still know what each other looks like.
As I tap the first threads of this into my notes app on the car ride to the airport at the end of my trip I notice my nephew staring at my fingers. A force of habit at this point, I quickly put my phone down. I make a funny face at him and he smiles. Watching him watch the landscape scroll by outside the car window I think about the shrinking distance between physical and virtual spaces, and if when he’s my age there will even be a distinction. I’m sure, as I am now, he’ll be using his technology to critique the next.
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