Be Here Now
I’ve done a lot of things in the past year that I told myself I’d never do. I worked several 80-hour weeks in a corporate office. I joined a fantasy football league. I helped found—of all things—a blog. And most recently, I got an iPhone.
More and more I find the artifacts of the person I figured I always would be—an artist, an eccentric—creeping into picture frames and dusty shoe boxes: photos of me half nude living in a cabin in the jungle of Nepal, stacks of back-pocket notebooks filled with embarrassingly bad poetry, and yes, even my old cell phone. I used that phone—a prehistoric silver brick—for about six years. Its shittiness was a mark of pride—a kind of feeble, middle-class gesture towards nonconformity. Switching to the iPhone was like graduating from a tricycle to a space shuttle, ditching the Ninja Turtle tee and donning a black tie.
By now, the zombified smart-phone addict has become a stock character, and even though I caved into owning an iPhone, I swore I’d do everything I could to steel myself against walking those tropes. But already I find myself ear-plugged and drooling over a three-inch screen for enormous, unhealthy chunks of time. I’m distracted away from friends sitting right in front of me. I use my phone for things I could never have wanted to accomplish before. It turns out if you’re slaving away in a downtown office on a Saturday, squatting on the john and cursing your existence, and you remember you need to trawl the waivers in your fantasy football league because Michael fucking Vick is still fucking injured, well, there’s an app for that.
What the hell happened to me? Can I not even take a crap anymore without connecting to the Internet?
Thank god Microsoft is here to capitalize on my self-loathing. It just launched a new ad campaign for the Windows Phone 7, which, admittedly, employs the stock character of the zombified smart-phone addict to great effect:
“It’s time for a phone to save us from our phones.” What an incredible slogan. It perfectly illustrates one of the most insidious characteristics of smart-phone-era capitalism: even when the institutions of commerce seem to be encroaching on our most basic human interactions, those encroachments merely unearth new markets to capitalize. Moreover, popular critiques of capitalism are regularly commandeered for its advancement. Are you slave to your phone? Sounds like you need more phone in your life. It’s the same tact Microsoft took with its series of Bing ads. Are search engines turning us schizophrenic? Sounds like we need more search engines in our lives. When faced with the disquieting aspects of advanced capitalist society, our societal reflex is to advance capitalism further.
Yesterday morning, my girlfriend and I were sharing breakfast, listening to an NPR piece on how smart phones are destroying relationships. There was a whole segment on how the relationship counseling industry has dealt with (read: benefited from) a huge spike in couples suffering because of their mobile devices. “Of course,” I thought to myself. “One arm of the free market has us making monthly payments on a distraction box, while another emerges to charge us for advice on how not to become so goddamn distracted.” I considered saying something clever to my girlfriend, but I was already running late for work. Plus, she had her laptop open at the breakfast table, her face buried in her inbox, and I had unthinkingly pulled up the weather app on my iPhone—even though there was a fucking door 10 feet away that I could have easily poked my head out. My god. We are all in desperate need of counseling.
Of course, what’s the real cure? Ditch the digital world? Move back to Nepal? Take up meditation and mind-expanding drugs? It is somewhat ironic that the second ad Windows released for their phone ends on the mantra “Be Here Now”:
“Be Here Now” is also the title of the famous book on spirituality by Ram Dass, often referred to as the “counterculture bible.” (Again, critique commandeered for advancement.) Ram Dass, formerly Dr. Richard Alpert, is well known for a few things: 1) working with Timothy Leary at Harvard during the acid binge, 2) studying in India to become one of the first prominent Western-born yogis, and 3) having a central character in ABC’s LOST named after him. There isn’t a work week that goes by that I don’t fantasize about pulling a Ram Dass—just packing a briefcase full of peyote, getting on a plane heading east, and crash-landing the fucker on a deserted island.
Really, I just miss the hell out of Nepal. But I also remember, after spending months in the jungle, missing the hell out of the people I left behind. There’s the real rub: the things for which I’m most tempted to denounce the distractions and vapid, impersonal malaise of advanced capitalist society—love, companionship—are the same things that keep me plugged into it.
I work a less-than-satisfying job so I can share an apartment and more-than-satisfying nights with friends. I joined a fantasy football league, despite its wormholes of online stat-tracking, to share lazy Sundays with friends near and far. And yes, my friends are also the reason I spend so much time staring at a tiny screen, reading lengthy emails and dashing off thousands of texts. Just last week, while riding the L home at night, alone, I received a message from a close friend I lived with in Nepal, and it made me glad to have that sleek black goddamned gadget at my fingertips.
I suppose this is the constricting, irreconcilable satisfaction of being here now.
Bowling Online by David Milton Brent
Hooray for the Everyday by Will Litton