With a quick glance, I could see a deep blue sky frame the upper atmosphere. Unaware of my immediate surroundings I kept walking down the street, looking down, blindfolded by the 4-inch screen that kept me fixed to the company of thousands of push notifications, beeps, buzzes and screen pops. I almost stepped on the stinker water hole that had accumulated gunk of Brooklyn ooze. For a moment I thought I would pocket my 4G smartphone as it would be smarter to pay attention to the spots of dog crap that decorated the broken sidewalk ahead of me. Panic stricken that no one would like me, I kept focused on the tiny screen, hoping for a tweet or like, hoping the rows of passersby would not think I was butt lonely. I was terrified at the appearance of loneliness as I almost bumped into a couple of heavily tattooed teenage chicks taking a “selfie”; “excuse me you moron” they yelled, “watch where you’re going.” Yeah, as if they too were not elsewhere but here, unaware of the moment. Sidewalks have become strange places sort of red carpets for unimportant folks who are constantly advertising themselves, believing they are above the crowd, in their own self-glamorizing bubbles. I wondered why I couldn’t just put the cell phone away and walk with my head straight. Maybe this was evidence of a deeper psychological disorder and really, the rest of the world would not panic if I was not available for the next 10 minutes. I said out loud: “I am much more than this.” That’s precisely the problem, as our stream of notifications, likes, tweets and sharing make us feel wanted and needed 24/7, we think we are much more important than who we really are.
I decided to go cold turkey and power off my cell phone. In a matter of seconds, my cravings kicked in and left me trembling. This desire for approval overload has reached obsessive heights inside the social media consumer, leaving us addicted, hooked on the spectacle of cheap thrills, constantly sucked into more and more expendable stimulation in order to be satisfied. The sense of loneliness is only one aspect of today’s smartphone addiction. The sharing of our collective obsessions invokes a new value system expressed by the currency of friends, likes, and re-tweets. Every stroke of a button communicates our identity to the world, broadcasting nonstop to the data cloud every moment of our personal stories as if this were important and fundamental to the collective psyche. The hidden truth is that this data cloud is mined by the corporations that feed us. They keep close track of our trends and friend sharing, turning this data into money, in a new currency of likes. They put us to work in the promotion of the rich and famous, branding their products on the back of our game of responses. These master manipulators have really ripped us apart in fierce competition for high ratings. They are experts in getting people to like you while the whole world watches. This reward seeking conditioning is a pervasive value system that prioritizes our actions in the promotion of fame by association and shallow interaction. The ageless concern for approval has turned popularity into a new currency and our self-esteem redeemable to the number of likes on our Facebook.
Social media was supposed to be empowering. Never before have we had such grassroots tools of communication. Never before have we had direct access to the vast amount of information available at our fingertips. This opportunity of spreading meaningful content is being lost in the noise of photos, albums, video bits, chats, threads and streams of ubiquitous noise and chatter that keep us distracted.
This elsewhere but here virtual reality has replaced traditional face to face body language and has made us incompetent social beings unaware of our panoramic views and nonverbal cueing. The habituation to a blinding rectangular phone screen experience is reducing our life to a caricature of language and reality.
My ten-minute phone break was over as I impatiently flipped my phone open, heart beating rapidly. I opened my collective “inbox” with hesitation, both thumbs paused for a second as a push notification from the candy crush “app” gave me current ratings, I was relieved to notice nobody had reckoned my silence.
My self-proclaimed vanity reified in a virtual presence. I was desperately seeking a fan based merge that would earn me a sponsorship. The illusion of public interaction and free choice mesmerized me. I was unaware of the dissolute socially stratified space I had entered, a sort of digital fortress that led me by the hand to the ghetto of the internet. One used to be able to count friends with one’s fingers. The truth was that I had almost no friends in my like box and this frightened the hell out of me, what if I didn’t get a single message all day? What would happen to my internet identity? At least the game app notification algorithms beeped every once in a while to remind me I was still there. Suddenly a flashed icon precluded the familiar meme ringer, activating the operant conditioning in my head rush, amplifying the need to be wanted. “You like me, therefore, I am” read the puzzling text message on the screen as I kept walking.
I noticed on the street corner a conglomeration of people packing close together, a wall of smartphones covered their overheads rushing to capture the excitement. Some bearded hipster dude wearing only drawers and pretty weird piercing, mauled over his new hip hop dance routine, thus captivating the crowds watching. The girl with the selfie stick next to me tried to spark a conversation inviting me to take a Snapchat, Is he famous? “I promised my followers I would keep them posted,” she bragged to me. Without warning a loud screech muted the boom box cadences. From above I scanned the blue screen backdrop as it drew clearly the outline of the JMZ train whizzing over the ground commotion.
Astonishingly nobody in the multitude noticed; their eyes remained glued to the broken phone screen dude that kept on dancing. Hidden in plain view, reality sped light speed away into the unaccounted past, as the zombie public’s blind spot mistook the witnessing present through the prosthetic eye candy of vain entertainment. I felt lost in the embedded network of the cultural fabric. The erosion of human communication laid lost in the digital relays of a vast machine. What were we really craving? Was it not meaningful relationships? Not this insane self-absorption orgy mediated by the data-sucking corporate hub that treats our self-promotion as merchandise.
Awakened by this introspection, my own solitude was feeling less lonely. I felt like smashing my broken phone screen on the sidewalk.
After this realization I don’t remember what happened, I had lost track of time; a shattering phone alert shook me seated inside the subway cabin which was full to its capacity. Eyes wide open, It seemed as if I was the only one watching, everybody else stood looking down in stupor “texting” and thumbing their touch screen gadgets. I appeared to be the only one annoyed by the constant beeping of different phone apps. A lonely passenger answered a cell call very loudly cursing somebody in slam “nuyorican” jargon. Deafened by slick colored earphones, the rest of the public transport users appeared undisturbed. I could care less about your private conversation. Our public spaces have been hijacked by the private discourse of personal trivia. I could not help noticing that texting went on with many different people at once. How could anyone multi-task and carry several conversations simultaneously over such dissimilar topics? Many experts argue that social media will evolve the way we communicate, perhaps what they are really implying is that language will be lost and tinkered with. Instead, our cell phones and tablets will do the thinking and talk for us. Dumbed down into bits and grunts of fragmented expressions, we will be downgraded and socially disabled.
I impulsively reached down to my pocket inseam sensing my cell phone was missing, perhaps I had in fact slam shattered it on the murky sidewalk. Instead, my hand took out of my green tote bag the book by Henry George, Social Problems, which kept me company. I randomly opened to page 242 and read:
“Power is always in the hands of the people. What oppresses the people is their own ignorance, their own short-sighted selfishness”.
There were no cell phones back in 1883, and no text messaging, yet this statement read all to familiar and relevant. I then thought this meme was totally a trendy tweet worth sharing with my friends and followers. Perhaps it would even go viral. Unplugged from the matrix, I was unable to send this message to the search engine. I had successfully severed the umbilical cord that kept me connected to the data cloud. A sense of freedom took me over. I did not know where this train would take me, nor if the jammed cabin noticed the derailing. In the end, it did not matter and I did not care that no one would follow or like me.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Carlos Cuellar Brown is a New York City media artist and essayist who has written on new media, social theory and metaphysics. His essays have been posted online by Opendemocracy, The Global Dispatches, The Pelican Web, Kosmos Journal, and STARDRIVE.
In 2013 his essay “Intermedial Being” was published by A Journal of Performance and Art PAJ #106 MIT Press Journals. In 2015 Mr. Brown was nominated for the TWOTY awards out of the Netherlands for his essay “Blueprint for Change”. He has been a regular columnist for Second Sight Magazine and Fullinsight.
His book, In Search of Singularity: Reflections and Chronicles from the End of Time, published 29 January 2017, is a series of reflections on the current cultural evolution from competition to cooperation, from patriarchy to reciprocity between humanity and the human habitat.