The year of my birth, 1985, saw the release of Back to the Future, wherein Michael J. Fox in acid-washed jeans returns to 1955 and lumbers through sleepy kitchens where the only gadgets are blenders and radios.
Could I exist in the year of my birth?
I belong to a generation whose tech transition was nuanced. Upon parting from bunkmates in camp, I gave out my snail mail address and shed tears. When my boyfriend’s job flies him to L.A., I know his office doesn’t block gChat, so I care less than I probably should.
In college, sophomore year we pooled to buy a stubborn boy a mobile. (Without it, it was just too tough to ever see him.) That year everyone started using Facebook. I started to mass-text: “What R U up 2?” And when I moved into my first apartment—the event when one considers subscribing to a newspaper—The Times went free online.
Is technology spoiling my generation—withering our social graces, falsifying our relationships, sucking away our ability to concentrate on an article longer than 200 words? To answer that, I went a week without any technology invented after 1985. No Internet, no email, no cell phone, no cable TV.
My blackout starts at midnight. It’s Chinese New Year’s Eve, allowing for the expunging of bad spirits. The afternoon is one of dread and printouts—a few appointments and some background legwork on articles I’m working on; it comes to 122 pages. Every necessary number in my cell phone gets transcribed onto a piece of paper I will fold and carry with me. I send notes to editors—If they want me this week, I’m only available by phone. I feel a lightness.
But then I start to dread every passing minute. Do I have her phone number, his? Ten thirty p.m., and I’m warming my face in the glow of the laptop for these last precious hours.
I can’t bear the thought of going for a run without an iPod, so I walk to the pool. I would like to be able to say that walking without music attunes me to the natural, sensual music of the streets. Instead it makes everything seem uglier, sadder.
After my swim, I read in a cafe window in the sun, feeling like a European lady. By 4 p.m., I’m bored to death of reading the printouts and even the book I was loving just yesterday. I compose a list of things to Google next week: Rosenthal on Auschwitz, toilet mapping, $1,000 dollar dessert.
The sun is going down and I’ve accomplished nothing. I go into the city to buy a cassette tape player. They had those in 1985. The Best Buy clerk is shocked when I ask; they have none. Kmart cheerily directs me to the second floor, where I buy a hunk of silvery plastic the size and heft of Harry Potter, volume seven.
Then it’s off to 128th Street’s Freedom Hall, where I’m taking a class on how the recession will bring about the death of capitalism. When the teacher says, “Please turn off your cell phones,” I don’t do anything. She gives me a look. In class, she explains that it’s no longer possible to “opt out” of the capitalist system.
On the subway on the way home, I’m one of the few without headphones. This is why a girl from the class sits next to me and we start talking. (In four weeks, we’ll be real friends.)
At home, I crave the glow of a screen. My roommate, a shy painter, is watching the news, and so I sit down. As we mock the weatherman, we are bonding. On my iPhone—which I’m using as my landline by keeping it perpetually plugged in—I can see my email count is 46. I cover that part with a teensy piece of tape.
I awake at 6 a.m. feeling rested. I remember: No email or Internet. And it’s too early to call anyone. I return to sleep.
I have to use my landline before I leave the house. On a voice message to my cousin, with whom I’ve scheduled dinner, I say, “I’m just writing you to confirm.” Writing?
Into my phone pops an SMS from a friend about a backpack he left at a party last week, asking for the number of the host—a writer at The Colbert Report who is dating another friend. I am gleeful to not have to reply.
Reading a paper copy of the $1.25 New York Times on the subway this morning, I feel like more of a rich person than I did when I played free applications on a beat-up iPhone.
After a job interview at Condé Nast, I would normally call friends in midtown to go to lunch, or my cousin who works at Condé Nast. But I’m too lazy to find a pay phone and scrounge up quarters. At home, I write my interviewer a paper thank-you note, only to realize I have no envelope, no stamps and do not know the location of the post office.
On the subway en route to dinner at my cousin’s house in the East 80s, because I’m not listening to music, I overhear the story of a doctor who studied Parkinson’s disease and ended up getting it herself. It was awful, they said, to know exactly how it would destroy her.
Later, going home on the train, reading the paper someone else is holding, I learn that the $825 billion bailout is not going through. At home, in an attempt to learn more, I watch a ton of local TV news, but I never get to a channel actually talking about the bailout. I realize I have no control over what I consume.
At 7, I’m meeting an aunt at the Kitchen in Chelsea, and I just have to be on time and pray she’s on time. After dinner, I end up walking past a friend’s apartment on 18th Street and see that her lights are on. At a grimy pay phone on the corner of Sixth and 18th, I call her. She doesn’t pick up. No One Ever Picks Up From a Number They Don’t Recognize.
My aunt works with galleries, and I’m meeting her and a friend at the Chelsea diner before gallery hopping. Am I hanging out with family more, I wonder, because as old people, they already live in a world without text and email?
I go to my aunt’s to use her landline. It’s big and plastic and I can’t work it into the crook of my arm in the way French teenagers in high-school textbooks always seemed to be able to. I call five people, and only the fifth, an unemployed friend, picks up with the kind of ring in his voice like he expects me to be a job. Sorry. Later, at home, I call the police station, whose new deputy I’ve been assigned to profile. No one ever picks up the phone. Ever.
I decide to walk to the police station. I run into a dude in jeans who asks, “Can I help you, ma’am?” This turns out to be the new deputy, whose whole spiel is that he wants to “make the office more approachable.” This will provide the perfect lead for my profile.
I go to a play, arrive super-early, so I duck around the corner to a coffee shop. An acquaintance who works there is bored, so we go bond over whiskey dicks at the Metropolitan. Afterward I swing back by the coffee shop and convince him to come to my best friend Lane’s house in Astoria and get drunk. A hot-tempered Southerner, Lane reminisces over how she has broken multiple phones by throwing them down onto slate pavements, tiled floors, brick. “I can’t actually break Scott’s neck,” she says. “But he can’t defend himself if he’s a phone.”
Then the people at Lane’s apartment party all go on YouTube, clicking from video to video.
The New York Times is five times the price of the Daily News. Reading it on the subway, you look like a rich ass. I have switched to buying the Daily News.
I think of the famous E. B. White line, “No one should come to New York to live unless he is willing to be lucky.” And maybe this is what I’ve been experiencing all week—making a friend on the train, dragging an acquaintance out to get drunk in Astoria, where we become legitimate friends. But also, I am seeing people less. I am more neighborhood- and family-focused. I see less, more crisply.
In the Bryant Park library are phone booths—dark and lovely as confessionals. The only person in them is on his Nokia, telling someone about his boss. It’s a Friday afternoon so I make some calls to ensure I have a social life. No one picks up save my unemployed friend, Lucy, who admits she only did thinking I was an employer calling with a job.
I call a boy I think I have a crush on to meet a few of us at the Yale Club. It turns out he has to work, but I only learn this later. In the meantime, I muster up anger toward him that turns out to be eventually useful—next week I’ll meet someone I really like.
I don’t mind waiting forever in the Yale Club lobby for Lane, watching all the young banker types swagger. This is more fun than playing iPhone Topple. Lane finally shows up with the excuse that she had an argument with her boyfriend and couldn’t call me to warn me.
We do what we would have done here 150 years ago, which is get drunk while reading the hard copy New York Times and then sneak around the private parties on the upper floors. On the 18th we find red wine and old men, singing “Danny Boy” a cappella. I drink myself through the minor chords.
Somehow we end up at the Harvard Club on a mission to affirm that there really is an elephant, stuck dead on the wall. There is; I want to take a camera-phone picture but I can’t. When I get home at 2 a.m. I have a voice mail from unemployed Lucy at 5:34 p.m.: “It’s really annoying that you’re not using technology,” she says, “’cause I actually need you for something in the next half-hour.”
It takes me 2.5 hours to read the whole Sunday Times and at the end, I basically only remember that David Segal’s article about the Mall of America uses the verb “limoed.” I watch too much of a movie with Matthew McConaughay; I compose a to-do list of what I will do when I get the Internet. Finally, it’s 12:04 a.m. Monday. I start up my laptop. Four hundred and nine emails. The ex-lover whose power ballad mix I’ve been listening to all week emailed me some shitty book of poems, and 20 minutes later I’m still reading them online.
At 2:20 a.m., I find myself watching a video called “suicide cat” on YouTube.