I get fiercely jealous when I watch movies set in “olden days.” And jealous is the right word. It isn’t nostalgia or obsession with the culture of an era or even some misguided pining for a version of yesteryear that never really was. I view these films — especially those set in the 40s, 50s and 60s — and I feel the dictionary definition of envy, a “discontented or resentful longing” for what I see.
Usually it’s the telephone.
Someone banging on Jimmy Stewart’s door to let him know there’s a call for him on the party line in the hall.
The cooler than cool James Dean staggering into his apartment to a phone that’s been trilling all evening, a caller wondering where in the world he’s been.
Classy-as-hell Dorothy Dandridge, cradling the receiver to her ear and announcing herself in grand theatrical tones.
There is a lot to be said for the comforts and conveniences of modern technology, and a portable mode of communication with practically limitless access to information has been sold to us as the ultimate tool of freedom —“the world at your fingertips.” But the truth is, sometimes I wish we’d never cut the cord.
I’m jealous of these actors in these old films because I want so badly what they have. Not just a phone you leave behind you when you go. Not just the mystery of wondering who’s on the other end of the line as you dash to pick it up. Not just the small physical joys of manipulating a rotary dial or twining your fingers through a cord as you chat…
I want a life where it’s not expected that you can reach me every second of the day. I want a version of reality where it’s more important to see the sunset than to snap a perfect shot of it for Instagram. I want to wake up in a world where everybody’s too busy living to worry about what others would make of this or whether or not someone’s trying to get in touch.
We do not live in that world.
I was at a wedding two days ago, and it was such a drag. Don’t get me wrong — the bride and groom were lovely, the service was what you’d expect, but it’s the reception that bothered me. I’ve been to some lame weddings and some really fun ones, to the point that I feel I know the range pretty well. But this one was…strange.
All the well-dressed guests milled around at the beginning, taking in the decorations, signing an ornate framed photo of the couple, and eventually shuffling through the buffet line for dinner and sitting down to eat. They followed the usual script — cake cutting, bridal bouquet, garter toss. But the rest of the time, if you looked around the room it was like nobody was really there. Everybody had their phones out. Taking pictures or selfies, looking up info on the honeymoon location, tagging and hashtagging the bride and groom on the social media platform of their choice…
This room was full of people but no one was talking to each other. If people laughed or danced, it was carefully choreographed to look good on camera. I sat at my table looking around at this rather subdued crowd and wondering why I’d even bothered to stay.
I had turned my phone off during the service and left it that way afterward, but when I made it home that night and saw the pictures from the event pouring in on Facebook, I was utterly bewildered. The wedding I saw on my Facebook feed looked like fun. It looked like people were smiling and laughing, goofing around, having a grand old time. The happy couple posed with every imaginable combination of wedding guests. The bride’s two-year-old nephew mashed his face into his slice of wedding cake. I looked at that wedding then remembered the one I’d actually been at and I felt like I was in the middle of my very own episode of The Twilight Zone.
I know that phones and the internet are not the root of all evil, and I’d hate for this lengthy tirade to come across as me trying to scapegoat them for all the social ills of this generation. But I can’t help but long desperately, fiercely, jealously for those portions of our past we let slip too easily away.
I wish that instead of blurting out our every inane thought in 140 characters or less, we would hoard and hone our observations, save them for written correspondence or in-person conversations with friends. There is something to be said for a palpable, tangible experience. In the same way that reading text on a screen is different from feeling the heft of a book in your hands, or the rustle of its pages as you flip forward, it’s an entirely different experience interacting with someone in person rather than through a device.
I want to sit across a café table from you as we talk and sip coffee and just absorb the hum of conversation all around, or walk down a sidewalk and feel the moisture in the air and the sandpaper scrape of the concrete on the soles of my shoes, or at the very least hear your voice over the telephone. Texting isn’t the same at all. Texting feels like talking at someone, while a phone call or letter seems more like talking to them…if that makes any sense.
Maybe none of this makes sense.
I just feel like we’re so busy documenting our experiences it’s like we’ve become tourists in our own lives. If something isn’t recorded on the internet, then it must not have happened at all. And the amount of information we absorb in a given day — the articles, memes, photographs, quizzes, videos, etc. we share — it’s staggering, and a little frightening. How can anything hold weight anymore if it’s constantly being buried beneath a never-ending avalanche of news feed garbage? We pause to consider a thought-provoking article, but it’s one of twelve thought-provoking articles we’ve read in the past three days, and we don’t really have to struggle to remember it because we can just save the link to our Articles board on Pinterest.
If this is some sort of game, then we are losing. Constantly connected, carefully curating the filtered and edited version of our lives to present to our adoring public, drowning in an excess of information and stimulation and yet bored out of our minds…
I think I’m done. If you want to talk to me, write me a letter. Call me on the telephone. Knock on my door. And please, for the love of all that is holy, look me in the eye when we’re together. Be present in the moment, not half-immersed in the massive house with its many rooms that is the Internet.
But who am I kidding? This only works if everyone decides to make a change, not just me. Otherwise the world simply goes on the way it always has. Which means I’ll just continue watching movies about Beat poets or World War II pilots or Old Hollywood starlets, and wishing more than anything that I could crawl through the screen and join them in an age where the phones still had cords but the people were free to walk out their front doors untethered and be truly present in their own lives.