Matt Nestor

iAlone


ISSUE 33 | NO NUMBER IN NATURE | OCT 2013

Day 1

I have no particular reason for upgrading to an iPhone. I am happy with the phone I have now. It calls and it texts and it fits in my pocket and this is really all I expect from it (it also turns off without warning, but I’ve come to expect this too). I am not an especially busy person. Flurries of e-mails don’t accumulate in my inbox; clusters of notifications never flower at the top of my Facebook. Rarely do I receive a communication requiring immediate response.

I am beginning to think it comes down to mere covetousness, tempered by a sense of shame. I want what everybody else has got, but I won’t be mistaken for a trend-follower. It was the same with regular cell phones. My classmates brought cells to school in the 7th grade. I didn’t condescend to join them until high school. Ditto Instant Messenger, Napster, Facebook. MySpace was over before I got around to it.

Five years have passed since iPhones appeared in New York. The designated period of sneering at the technological sheep is over. I remain independent of the zeitgeist, haven’t lost my moorings in the cultural riptide. My autonomy is intact. I can safely use an iPhone.


Day 2

AT&T offers two monthly data plans. The first plan is for 300MB of data and costs $20. The second plan is for 3GB data and costs $30. This is an outrageous pricing scheme and I let the salesman know it. I’ve already had to check him once today, when he tried to sell me the iPhone 5 though I could get a 4 for free.

“Just give me the 300 MB plan,” I tell him. “I’m not one of those people who refreshes TMZ all day so they can be the first to know what Miley Cyrus just smoked.”

The salesman, a young man in a blue shirt and a blue tie, is patient with me. “I’ve heard the same thing from so many people. And you know what usually happens to them? They go over the 300MB limit and they have to pay the penalty.”

“Yeah, well, not me. I don’t have an Instagram called ‘Every calorie I consume, photographed individually.’”

“Please,” says the salesman, leaning in and laying his hands palm up on the table.

“Get the bigger plan. When you look at your bill in a month, and it says you’ve used less than 300 MB, you can switch, okay?”

I buy the 3GB plan. But when I walk out the door, I toss the device in my bag, right in with the shopping and the bike lock. The iPhone 4s - white with a black Speck cover, 4.9 ounces and with enough memory to store the complete works of Shakespeare 14,000 times over - is just another object. It’s not going to get any special treatment.


Day 3

I load only the most austere apps onto my phone:

     Flashlight, for reading books before sleep.
     Seafood Watch, for deciding on the ethical fish.
     Evernote, for taking notes.
     iRuler, for measuring stuff.

I do not put any music on the phone and I do not download any games. I will not be seduced by the vulgar amusements of the screen. The realm of consciousness is a sacred precinct, self-sustaining, content to contemplate itself even unto eternity. It is a well of deep thoughts, a workshop for long and intricate chains of logic. The only necessary input is patience.

But patience is just what these phones seem to feed off of. They reduce brains to nerve-endings, make people ravenous for stimuli. News can’t wait until the morning papers. Little morsels of social approval must be ingested every quarter hour. Sure, I download the Facebook app. But when they ask me if I want to receive push notifications—if I want my pocket to “ding” every time my cousin invites me to play FarmVille—I click No. My phone will not intrude upon my thoughts.


Day 5

I am sitting in an Indian restaurant, waiting for the check. The woman across the aisle waits, too. I examine her in the wall mirror: attractive, very, in that gym- and skin-care regimen way. Her hair is clean and her eyes are bright. She is, like most people in my Manhattan neighborhood, a master of self-management.

She is on her phone, of course. What do people do on their phones all the time?

They surely all look the same: heads bowed, lips set, eyes intent on their six square inches. It’s a full-brained concentration and one that commands respect. We’ll wait, shuffle our feet sooner than violate such mental intensity. And the object under scrutiny is always so mysterious. Who knows what they’re doing? Maybe they just got a text message from the president. The screen’s so small, I peek over people’s shoulders in the subway and still can’t tell.

The checks have yet to come. Once or twice, my neighbor looks up from her phone and glances over at me. I know I can make eye contact.

“What the hell’s with the service around here?” we’d say with our raised eyebrows. “These people should be taken out and shot.” Then we’d grimace and snort and shake our heads contemptuously, and little spark of human sympathy would pass between us—the West Village queen and the wannabe writer.

But I don’t do any of this. I iSnub her. She’s not the only one with a smartphone; I’ve brought mine to dinner and am using it in public for the first time. Not to send e-mails or attend to matters urgent, but to type out ideas for a screenplay I’ll never write.

Yet how could she know that? In my imagination, she’s even begun to fancy me a little:

“That guy’s so busy on his phone. He’s kind of messy-looking but he’s obviously doing something important. Oh, I wish he would look at me.”


Day 7

I join a fancy gym. Equinox, if you’re wondering. Coming as it does on top of the iPhone upgrade, I’m beginning to wonder if I don’t have some sort of subconscious plan for myself. A life-renovation, if you will, to something more along the lines of the restaurant lady. I’ve even signed up for that most quintessentially bourgeois fitness class:

Spinning.

The instructor is zesty, tanned, about thirty-six. She sees that I’m novice and comes over to “fit” me to the bike.

“Your correct saddle height is seventeen inches,” she announces after bouncing me up and down for a minute, “and your horizontal ratio is zero.”

“Seventeen, zero,” I say. “Got it.”

“Do you have your phone on you?” She means my smartphone, of course, and as a matter of fact I do. Some perversity caused me to put it in my gym bag. But I deny it.

“I have my brain on me.” I say. “Just as good, if not better.”

She looks quizzically at my forehead, trying to see the brain inside. “I’m not so sure,” she says, shaking her head and frowning. “I’d trust your phone better.”


Day 8

Greg says the iPhone 5 has a superior battery life. He hasn’t charged his for days.

But my iPhone is an iPhone 4, perpetually on the edge of revocable, Tamagotchi-style death. As I plug it in for the second time that evening, I wonder idly if this is a purposeful design feature—a ploy by Apple to make me emotionally involved in the life of my iPhone.


Day 9

“Are you joking? I really hope you’re trying to be funny.” She’s frowning and looking very grim. She looks like an Evangelical who’s just realized her son is gay.

“Um, hello,” I chortle. “Of course I’m joking. You think I’m for real right now?” But am I joking? I’m not so sure. This is Alex I’m talking to, a smart phone holdout who’s sported the same durable flip phone since the day I met her. She’s just been registering disgust at the way smartphone users slight those around them. And I was just agreeing with her—who wouldn’t?—when I felt a buzzing in my pocket. It was the Airbnb app. Someone had requested to stay in my apartment, and was willing to pay good money for the privilege.

I was mid-response when Alex interrupted me. The moment passes soon enough; we take a stroll in the park and lunch on MacDougal. But the incident continues to bother me. Alex is no conversational saint. For all her outrage, I can’t begin to count the number of times she’s made me wait, thumbs a-twiddle, while she’s answered some oh-so-urgent text message. Responding to the Airbnb request, I distinctly remember thinking,

“Take that, Alex—and every other girl who’s ever made we wait while she texted, too. I’ve been growing old while women text since the seventh grade!”

And yet. There was something automatic about the way I leapt into the Internet, something almost instinctual. All my justifications for ignoring Alex—I was joking, I was getting revenge—are post hoc. There’s no getting around it. I was iRude.


Day 13

I’ve crossed the smartphone Rubicon: I no longer worry about data usage. Nowadays, one in three minutes of Internet time is spent on a smartphone, and this morning I use mine to check Facebook even though my computer is just a few feet away.To me, Facebook is better on an iPhone, because it’s less addictive. I still open it a lot, but I spend less time while I’m there. Newsfeed items take up the whole screen of my iPhone; this really brings home the incredible triviality of most people’s posts. I am not tempted to keep scrolling.

Email on the iPhone is also better. Everything is smaller, more streamlined. When an email is like a text message, I respond to it like a text message: quickly. This is good. Send and ye shall receive.


Day 15

My iPhone wakes me with a chirrupy Mozart quartet. The phone lies near me—79% of smartphone owners sleep within five feet of their phones—and I reach over and check my messages without leaving the pleasant encumbrance of my bed sheets.

Four new e-mails. I’ve never gotten so many before 10 a.m. in my life. And I’ve never answered them all so quickly.

The day’s been earmarked for an outing. I head north to the Cloisters, Karolina by my side. She’s very pretty, and very sweet, and she has that invaluable characteristic of finding me funny. I’m eager to show her a good time. We wander the hushed halls of the old faux-monastery, pausing before manuscripts, pointing to stain-glass windows half-hidden in alcoves. In the chapel, we stand in the center of forty inward-facing speakers, each of which projects a separate voice: Janet Cardiff’s The Forty Part Motet. It is an enchanting, overwhelming experience—the kind of experience that, when shared, can be referred back to with total recognition. It’s instant relationship glue.

We are standing there, she and I, when about halfway through the piece my pocket makes a buzz. It’s from Vaughn, about our soccer team. Can I register today?

“Sorry,” I whisper to her. “I have to take care of this.” Of course, I don’t have to. It can wait until later; until two weeks ago it would’ve. But I answer the message, just as I answer all the other messages sent me during our date. At day’s end, my life has palpably improved. I’ve booked someone on Airbnb. I’ve fixed an issue with the website I help run. I’ve registered for a Sunday soccer league. And I didn’t even annoy the girl.

Karolina has a smartphone too.


Day 16

And today comes withdrawal. Nobody texts me all day, or e-mails me, or posts on my Facebook wall. I want to hear from someone so bad that not checking my iPhone has become a physical struggle. There is a tense feeling in my chest, especially when I look at the phone. It is on the desk in front of me and I’ve vowed not to check it until three o’clock. Have I already become the person I feared I would, craving stimulus, noise, approval? I give in; nothing, just ripples in a pool, the default image some committee in Cupertino decided would be suitably soothing to losers like me who didn’t get any new messages.


Day 19/20

I find a row of bumps on my shoulder. Three of them, very neat, very straight. Very grim. I’ve always been quick at arithmetic: An endless series of strange Airbnb guests + what Greg told me about the irrefutable nature of three bumps in a straight line = bed bugs.

That was at 7:45 p.m. It’s four in the morning before I finally drop off to sleep. In the meantime, I’ve scoured every inch of my room for the telltale signs of an infestation. There’s not a trace, but I still don’t believe it; what of the bumps? They’re not big, pink, or itchy, but, as the Internet tells us, “everybody reacts to bed bugs differently.” I just don’t know.

For once, when I wake up I don’t check my phone right away. I go straight to the mirror and look for new bites. There’s nothing, of course, but I’m still ready to give the day over to worry and anxiety when my phone dings. It’s my new app. My Daily Routine.

After the iPhone crisis a few days before—when it became apparent that I was becoming dependent—there were two options. Either I could withdraw from the phone, turn off push notifications and delete Facebook; or I could entangle it deeper into the fabric of my life and hope for the best. I chose the latter. I downloaded the apps Re.minder, Wunderlist, Momento and My Daily Routine. The phone had mostly been doing secretarial work, handling mail and calls. Now it’s head of planning, too.

I have no doubt that My Daily Routine salvages what would have been a lost day. 10 a.m., it announces. Time to take a shower. 10:15 a.m. You have an hour of work ahead of you. 11:15 a.m. Go to Sam’s for your second (and final) cup of coffee. After four hours of work—solid, considering how little sleep I had—I hit the gym. Here, too, the phone accompanies me. There is music on it now, and audiobooks, and I consult with MyEquinox for confirmation on which muscle groups to target. Today it’s back and abs.

Later, Shoplist Free reminds me what to buy at the Chelsea Trader Joe’s, and at midnight Momento commands me to write a journal entry. I do so. Though brief, and full of typos incurred on the tiny digital keyboard, it is my first journal entry in months.

As if as a reward, I get a nice, juicy e-mail. Mr. Daniel Peddle has written to say he likes my ideas about his screenplay and wants to hire me as an editor. Smiling with satisfaction, I have almost—almost—forgotten about the bed bugs. But then, over a celebratory glass of Trader Joe’s finest, the itches return. First on my arm, then under my leg, and finally on my ass. Bed bug bites itch constantly, I remind myself, not just when you think about them. Bed bug bites don’t spontaneously spring up all over your body at one in the morning. But I am on feet again, rushing to the mirror, pulling my trousers down and peering at my ass pimples.

Hitherto, the iPhone distracted me from my neurosis. Now it has the opposite effect. My search for “bed bugs” in the store uncovers an app that maps reported bed bug infestations. To show you how it works, the advertisement displays an example map. The map is of my neighborhood. No points for guessing whether it’s full of red pins.


Day 22

What is so sacred about mental solitude? Why shouldn’t I let my iPhone butt-in on my thoughts? When I am sitting in the subway and I haven’t brought a book, this is the sort of thing that passes through my mind:

     I wonder if there are any home videos of me I haven’t seen yet.

     (Image of me, young and with a mop hair cut, doing cartwheels.)

     I should take more videos of my family.

     With my smartphone, duh. That’s half the point of them!

     What will people look like in the future?

     (Image of an angular, spiky-haired person behind an angular, spiky collar.)

     Maybe they’ll look the same as New Yorkers, i.e. pretty heterogeneous.

     On the other hand, we all sort of look like hipsters now, don’t we?

     I still need to see the new season of Girls.

This is a verbatim account of my train of thought. I know because at every fourth thought I paused to write down the preceding three. I went on to consider (says my notebook) the borough of Brooklyn and its various parts; the price of a croissant; and the healthiest midmorning snack.

I had just arrived at the almond went my phone when ding. An e-mail from The Actor’s Company Theater, cordially inviting me to see William Inge’s Natural Affection.

There’s no escaping the web, not even underground. I re-pocketed the phone, but I might just as easily have kept it in front of me. Most of the other riders were on theirs. Even with book and magazine readers thrown in, we sit-and-thinkers were a clear minority.

Thinking as a pastime is dying. Now that most of us carry smartphones—as of May of this year, the majority of American cell users—the time we spend alone, with no one but ourselves for company, is becoming scarce. Consider supermarket lines, subway rides, long stretches of sidewalk: these used to be good, nay unavoidable times to think.

Now these are good times to check one’s smart phone. The objective number of thoughts per capita, already hit hard by the Walkman and its descendants, has fallen yet further since the advent of the smart phone. The day does not seem far off when, like the overgrown babies floating around the spaceship Axiom in Wall-E, we will not have to think at all.

But so what? Much as I pride myself on my commitment to mental activity, it would be a lie to pretend my thoughts aren’t consistently rambling, pedantic and useless. Or if not that, anxious. Or if not that, painful. Indeed, I find thinking such a chore that I’ve downloaded an app specifically designed to fight it: iMeditate.


Day 27

The iPhone gives me a headache. It buzzes in my pocket like a trapped hornet, or dings like a cheap microwave; and if it’s not buzzing or dinging, it’s chiming, reminding me it’s time to iMeditate. I’ve deleted some of the apps, turned off Facebook notifications, put it on Airplane mode for stretches—but I continue to crave, and dread, the phone’s dings. I feel deeply under its sway.

The funny thing is, when I check my data usage, now nearly a month into my contract, I find I’ve barely cracked 100 MB. I qualify for the cheaper data plan by a mile. The average iPhone user, meanwhile, uses almost five times that much data each month. Do their iPhones make them feel five times as stressed as I am now? >

Day 33

As a writer, I've always had two reliable friends: the Moleskine notebook and the piping hot bath. I'm hardly the first to make their acquaintance. Hemingway (if their ad copy is to be believed) favored the Moleskine; Plath describes baths with a tenderness bordering on obsession in The Belljar. Nabokov, Edmond Rostand, and Agatha Christie were all noted bathers; I myself average two soakings a day. And why not? The writer's first task is mental stillness. He depends entirely on the quality of his consciousness; his whole task consists in making sentences in his head. Trying to write while anxious, stressed, or tired is like building a house of cards in a windstorm—hence the sanctity of certain material externalities, if they are capable of creating internal quiet. I wouldn't trade baths for a million dollars.

And here comes the smart phone. The smart phone is man’s new best friend. There are more than twice as many smart phones in America as there are dogs, and small wonder: dogs do entertainment and, after a fashion, social approval, but smart phones do that and e-mail and Internet too. The promise of the smart phone is the elimination of idle consciousness. The phrase “stuck in my head” may one day have no meaning. Every waking moment will find our attention directed outward: toward others, videos, games, web sites. Among all these different functions of the smart phone, the only hierarchy is that they are all superior to plain old thought.

Thought is like a timid mouse, nibbling at the table of the slumbering giant Smart Phone. Smart Phone gets a text and Thought scurries away; Smart Phone gets an invite to play FarmVille and Thought scurries away. Thought encounters a nut too big to crack, say, "what's the name of the actor who played Sgt. Bowren in The Dirty Dozen?" and Smart Phone snatches it away and opens it with ease. Thought contents himself as best he can, but all the juiciest, ripest morsels are piled up at the giant’s end of the table: the angry birds, the hilarious cats, Miley Cyrus’ ass. The mouse Thought is neurotic, flighty, and beginning to starve.

Where does this leave the writer? He is, after all, a professional idler. His whole job is the patient cultivation of thoughts. I’m writing this section under deadline, and to fight the stress I’ve fallen back on an old friend: the bathtub. As you read these words, you may imagine me, if you choose to, completely naked and ensconced in water up to about the level of my nipples. That's what I look like right now. Only don't picture me with a Moleskine. I don't use Moleskines anymore. I'm using Evernote, so that afterwards I can send the words directly to my computer. It's more efficient that way.

Sent from my iPhone

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