“We live in such constant nearness to the abyss of past time that the moment is endlessly sucked into.”
—John Jeremiah Sullivan
Lately there seems to be something in the ether. Some kind of emergent desire for very recent history, for those salad days of not even ten years ago, when smartphones and social media didn’t exist. A desire that smacks not so much of helpless nostalgia as it does the early fumblings of an underground movement.
See, for example, Jonathan Franzen’s recent call to arms in The Guardian against our “insatiable technoconsumerism.” Or this NY Times article about the lengths to which desperate New Yorkers will go to free themselves from the tyranny of their mobile devices. Or any of the people who wander, dazed, slightly shell-shocked, into the bookstore where I work and feel the need to make a comment about how befuddled or disappointed or even angry they are about the general trajectory of recent technology.
I find myself longing for life without an iPhone, too. And not just because I hate that looking at my phone is the last thing I do before I go to sleep at night, and the first thing I do when I wake up in the morning.
(Remember books? Remember prayer?)
The other day, it being September 11th and all, I watched the documentary 9/11. You may have seen this movie; it was shown on one of the networks a few months after the attacks and had over 39 million viewers—the largest audience ever for a television documentary. I own the DVD, and I feel it is important to watch it every few years to remind myself of something. What something, I’m not sure. I was born and raised in Albany and know enough people who were in New York City that day to feel at least somewhat personally impacted by its events.
I obtained the 9/11 DVD in 2005. I say obtained because I didn’t buy it; I stole it from Blockbuster. I had just moved to Manhattan and was talking with my new roommate about September 11th. I had never seen the documentary, but remembered during the course of our conversation that my mother had raved about it when it first aired. My roommate and I then impulsively decided to walk up First Avenue to the nearby Blockbuster to rent it. And because at that time I was an irresponsible and lazy twenty-two year old, I never returned the DVD.
(Remember brick-and-mortar Blockbusters? Remember 2005?)
Until the other night, it had been a long time since I’d last watched 9/11. I realized I’d forgotten much of its narrative framework: two French brothers spend the summer of 2001 embedded in a Lower Manhattan firehouse with the intent of making a documentary about the experiences of rookie NYC firefighters. I’d forgotten how the movie is not just the accidental record of terrorism it became, but also a paean to the workaday lives of firemen. I’d forgotten how New Yorkers sound; I’ve been living in the southeast for the past seven years and that blue-collar Long Island (“Lawn Guyland”) brogue sounded as sweet to me as any Yankee homerun bat-crack. I’d even forgotten how much we all used to say “never forget” in the months immediately following September 11th.
“Nevah fahget,” the firemen say, over and over, their soulful Italian-American eyes dampening, their summertime-tan chins trembling. “Nevah, nevah fahget.” We all said it. That phrase was everywhere back then: on t-shirts, bumper stickers, the lips of presidents. If September 11th had been a fast-food chain, “Never Forget” would have been its advertising slogan. One of those wildly successfully slogans that at its peak seems to be everywhere we look, takes over our national consciousness, becomes a pop culture catchphrase, even pops up in our own conversations, and then, as soon as its campaign is taken off the air, we forget all about it.
(Remember come fly the friendly skies? Melts in your mouth, not in your hand? Two all beef patties, special sauce, lettuce, cheese, pickles, onions on a sesame seed bun? Whassup?)
What struck me most of all about 9/11—more than the New York accents and the rejoinders to never forget and the painfully baby-cheeked pre-September innocence of the novice fireman Tony, who seems to kind of locum tenens for all Americans that summer—is that it is a record of a world in which certain technologies—technologies we now take for granted—did not yet exist. There are many shots in 9/11 of herds of people on street corners in Lower Manhattan, staring up at the Twin Towers, pointing, mouths gaping, gesticulating. A few speak into cell phones. No one—not one person pictured in the documentary—is filming the burning towers with their smartphone camera.
There even are shots of New Yorkers using pay phones—a sight that will make this documentary someday seem not just slightly but incredibly quaint, in the way that Jackie O’s pink pillbox hat lends a kind of quaintness to that speckled Zapruder film. Certain objects are for whatever reason predisposed to becoming more swiftly petrified in time than others. At the exact moment in which they (the payphone, the pillbox hat) become outmoded, almost as if time-stamped, these objects stop being themselves and start being signifiers of the time in which they existed. In recent history the threshing machine of technological innovation has in its relentless churn tossed off such artifacts at an ever-increasing, and probably purposeless, rate of change.
The people captured on film in 9/11 live in a world before Instagram, Twitter, YouTube, Facebook. Before the iPad, the iPhone, the iPod. Before widely available wireless internet. They live in a world of Blockbuster stores, VHS tapes, cordless phones and landlines. A world of compact discs and compact disc listening stations in music stores. A world of music stores, Napster, WinAmp. A world of AOL Instant Messenger, Friendster, MySpace. A world of Palm Pilots, disposable cameras, one-hour photo, rear-projection television. A world of MapQuest, AltaVista, Lycos, Netscape Navigator. A world of flip phones and BlackBerries. Turns out 9/11 isn’t only an accidental documentary of terrorism—it’s also an accidental documentary of life before smartphones, and of a different kind of lost innocence.
Part of what makes 9/11 so valuable as an artifact is that it contains some of the only, and certainly the clearest, video footage of the first airplane hitting the North Tower. (Of course, another thing that dates 9/11 today is the quality of the video, which looks incredibly paltry on a high-definition flat screen TV.) Had September 11th occurred in 2013, the primacy of this documentary’s first-hand account would have been undeniably diluted, for how much cell phone video footage would have already been posted to YouTube? How many rumors begun on Twitter?
Tech democratizes, its champions insist. (And of course it does; I wouldn’t be writing this article for publication if it weren’t for the internet.) As militants, for example, swarm a mall in Nairobi, the New York Times website offers a helpful link: “Who To Follow On the Ground,” a list of professional photographers who are posting pictures of events at the mall to their Instagram accounts. Is this the democratization of reporting, communications, information sharing? In the sense that we are all now able to document the world and share our documents with others—in the sense that we do not have to depend on “only” three networks and the local paper to provide us with our news—yes, but to what end? Do we need as much information as we have? Is it any wonder that television news networks have splintered along partisan lines? A modern day Walter Cronkite doesn’t exist because he can’t; America is no longer a country that can be unified under one decent man’s opinion, or even hear that opinion above the din of the sharing of our own. Perhaps anything that increases American awareness of international events is a good thing, but why do we follow people documenting terrorist attacks on Instagram? Not to become more informed. No, it’s so we can obtain another hit of the entertainment, of the avoidance of our own realities, that social media provides.
From this vantage point technology appears not democratic but oppressive. When our pursuit of either the technological embalming of our own existence, or worse, voyeurism into other peoples’ lives takes over the real-time events and experiences of our days and nights—and I can’t be the only one who feels that it has—we have suffered a terrible loss. We have traded the goose for the golden egg, so to speak. Had Proust had his nose buried in a LeapPad, it’s doubtful he would have remembered the madeleine. Real-time sensory experience and face-to-face personal interaction with other human beings has been relegated to the broadcasting and recording of it. So embalmed, we forget to live. We are diluted, numbed, less alive.
In the inexorable onrush of new technologies, the time between now, and September 11th, 2001—twelve years—is more than enough time for these technologies to fundamentally change and damage the world and the way we interact with it. But we probably can’t help ourselves. We want to preserve some part of ourselves, no matter how ephemeral the preservation. We, like Narcissus, want to take selfies. Technology is to adults as candy is to children, and when we encounter the latest devices, we are all a little bit like Bob in What About Bob?: “I need, I need, I need, gimme gimme gimme.” Tech companies’ marketing of their new products hinges on the aspirational and our reflexive desire for it. There’s an AT&T commercial airing on TV right now that even cops to this: “We all love our devices,” the voiceover states, “Until we see the new one. Technology doesn’t wait. Why should you?” In fifty years this copy many sound as sinister as the sing-song cigarette advertising of the 1950s.
So, then: when will the pushback begin? When will we begin to access the better angels of our nature and resist the siren song of the shiny new toy? I’m due for an upgrade—a phrase that would have been unintelligible when spoken out of context twenty years ago—and it recently occurred to me: what if I didn’t get the newest version of my smartphone? How revolutionary would that be?
Liz lives and writes in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.