Where I work there’s an abandoned balcony.
The entire building, balcony included, used to belong to a semiconductor company. The company was started after World War II by one man, a Cal Poly grad-slash-engineer-slash-visionary. As they tell it, at one point he had close to a thousand employees and was the second- or third-largest employer in the county. He had plenty of chances to sell along the way. IBM to Microsoft to a China-based company whose name nobody could pronounce …and, more recently, “somewhere in India.” But he refused. He didn’t want the jobs to leave the area.
As a result, the company has long dwindled. The couple-hundred-thousand-square-foot building where they used to, you know, make things, is now segmented into their small headquarters (the manufacturing is now outsourced), a powder-coating shop, a wine-storage facility and an e-commerce company. The allegory for the financial state of the country is my place of work: the once mighty semiconductor plant now makes the majority of its revenue as a land lord.
The balcony that used to be the privilege of the owner, with its commanding views of the rolling hills and dormant volcanos and spiny vineyards of California’s rediscovered Central Coast, is now a derelict, crack-tiled mess where broken office chairs take their last few breaths of fresh air before moving on to landfill and the most ostracized lepers of today’s office culture—the smokers—find refuge together.
The other day, as I was walking by the “Metastatic Mezzanine” (as some clever coworker wrote on a sign taped to the door to the balcony of shame before HR got a whiff of it), I saw something interesting.
One of the guys from engineering, a smoking stalwart, put down his cigarette. Left it there. Just burning on the handrail.
He took his newly freed appendage and started two-handed texting.
I stopped and watched for a moment, his typing then swiping movements. He turned his screen so it was facing him horizontal and chewed over what he was watching before turning it back again and smiling and typing something urgent with his thumbs. I stared for the better part of two or three minutes, until I felt a hum in my pocket. My own device brought me out of this observation coma and I walked on, his cigarette still burning on the edge and my head now buried in my own screen.
There are so so many problems: This generation of children will live shorter (nutrition/sugar/one-in-three with Type 2 diabetes by 2050) lives than their parents for the first time, well, ever. Critical thinkers beware: we’ve abandoned the programs that made school worth going to—visual arts, physical education, drama, dance, shop—forsaken for standardized benchmarks showcasing only which schools are excellent at teaching …for the test. We can’t seem to find something for our young men on the periphery to do other than to play first-person shooters, post delusional rants and (legally) stockpile semi-automatic people killers for some kind of self-fulfilling flourish end-game that is both a product of one’s own Hare-rated delusion and the rudderless rhetoric of a spineless-but-underfunded media and verbose and overstuffed political base which, regardless of the side of the aisle, is beholden to the lobby of big weaponry.
The center of it all, the root of this evil, is the device you’re probably reading this on right now.
That digital hit. That instant gratification. That sugary sweet break from your everyday. A glowing, uploading, mini-vacation from the crying baby and the cranky boss; texts, tweets, page updates, hashtags, videos, chats, updates and apps, the drug of choice for the caffeinated, concerned and constipated with fear. There too many big problems, too many manifestations, too many unknowns around the corner for us to go it alone. And so we have this glowy creature in our hands. This insecurity blanket of literally every. Single. Thing that’s happening right now. Well, everything—and nothing.
And you know it’s happening. You see the irony. You watch a viral video about how we need to stop watching viral videos and it all makes sense. You need to cut down to an hour a day. Maybe a few salutary texts in the morning or in case of emergency. Do all your emails at night. Check Facebook once a day—twice max to maybe check up on your mom holding the virtual mirror under her nose to see whether she’s still breathing …or at least out wildflower hiking with friends.
You set guidelines on your children. No screen time before school, unless it’s for a report. And put it away during, unless its recess. And nothing until after practice and homework’s done, unless you’re trying to make dinner. And absolutely put it away right before bed, unless it’s for research on a school project.
And it starts early. Too early. I often catch myself, helping feed or rock my newborn, after spending eight hours staring at a double screen plus my handheld in a cubicle less than a hundred feet from the smokers’ balcony, checking my emails and texting wildly as he looks at me with those still unchanged deep-blue eyes. This hum of mystery behind them. Just him and me …nothing could come between us but the black monolith case and Apple logo.
And I wonder, for him, for me—for all of us, not only whether this is the new smoking, but is it something so much more sinister. I’m not breathing in tar and chemicals and exhaling a kind of perfumey exhaust. No, what I’m feeding my brain, constantly, might be worse.
What am I doing to my insides and how much am I really isolating myself from the outside? From real interaction. From hugs and handshakes and meaningful conversation? From deciding to pick up and go visit the cousins in Minnesota or the friends in Utah or the 91-year-old grandmother in the Central Valley or my father’s headstone one town over? How much of this dime’s worth of existence am I spending on all these half-promises to put it down just after I check this restaurant review and get directions and send my sister this photo and make sure nobody emailed me back… How much of this real life am I spending on something made-up?
Can you imagine today going to a baseball game, a concert, a trip to New York—without your device? No record to show you were there and with whom. Nothing to navigate you around besides your own quick wit and ability to read a subway map. Nothing to do but interact and observe and interact some more and eat somewhere because it looks good and visit part of the park because you happened to take a wrong turn and *gasp* run in to someone just because you were somehow, some way, in some strange turn of the ladle in this cosmic stew—simply meant to.
And no real way to explain why much less showcase how.
No filtered shot of a picture of you staging you doing what you suppose everyone might be interested in seeing while what you’re really supposed to be doing—which is simply living in that moment—passes by for the sake of some notion of preservation purportedly for posterity.
You know it’s all really for the invisible someone who wouldn’t even care if they existed because at the same time, they’ve already moved on from (your) moment. Why? Because they’re busy trying to preserve theirs, for what they hope is eventually future consumption by you.
When outside, posing under the trickle of Bridalvail Falls in Yosemite, bounding around Bhutan, waking up then waxing up at Lance’s Left, or simply staging the leaf thing drawn in your coffee foam—living at the speed of how to be observed is not really living. The mindless missives of our every days. The deflections from what we’re really doing. The callous ability to see ourselves as one-dimensional persons of interest; the evil lies in the place we can always use fewer characters or one more blurry split-screened take to describe. One more call into the great crevasse as we sacrifice our children’s virginal minds to the gurgling and churning molten rock of worthless information. Ever shallow. Jump right in.
For many years my father was a smoker. In the end, as he fell victim to lung cancer, those decades puffing on his own metastatic mezzanine shaved several years off his life.
And yet, he never logged on. Never stared at a screen. Never relied on the device for advice. He golfed and boated and walked his dogs. He looked up at the trees and the stars beyond and ventured to the store in the afternoon. He knew where he wanted to eat and what he wanted from the menu. He read books and magazines and fell asleep in his chair.
And as I take a drag off of this, I wonder whether he wasn’t better off with his dirty little habit than I am with mine.