The Internet Personified: Ring ring ring
A new phone in the pandemic made me think about the Olden Days
Hello my charming kettlebells,
When is it that we got less excited about stuff we bought? I mean, the need to endless consume things hasn’t gone anywhere, in fact, it’s larger than ever, a lot of us using online shopping apps to self-soothe. (You don’t have to spend the money, but just the act of “adding to basket” makes you feel a little spurt of joy.) I suppose it comes from the instant-ness of shopping these days. You’re an Amazon Prime member, you order something today morning, it’s at your doorstep the next. The anticipation period is over.
Just as I typed that sentence, the doorbell rang and my new navy blue belted cardigan was delivered. Rs 840, marked down from Rs 2699. French Connection. A bargain in acrylic. And then I remembered I bought another sweater from an Instagram “thrift store” (mostly export surplus, which I’d do myself, but I’m avoiding Sarojini Nagar this year) and so I popped into the store’s DMs, asking when it would be shipped.
And then you have the thing—the thing you wanted, and were able to find with just a few taps on your keyboard. “Belted cardigan” I typed into my preferred clothes shopping app. I found the darkest colour, the best price, I bought it instantly. What would once have taken a few trips to a few stores, a weekend afternoon given over to finding the right fit and size, coming home with a shopping bag marked with the store’s name, and leaving that bag by your closet for a while, remember that? Remember looking at it with satisfaction, pulling it out, tags still intact, the smell of the store still lingering on it? I don’t even like mall shopping at big brand stores that much, but I remember the pleasantness of going home, a bag on the seat next to me, trying on your new outfit at home to see if it still looks as good. I just did it for my birthday last year, the whole mall shopping experience, but only because I couldn’t find what I wanted online so I thought I’d browse. (“Just did it” = last December, ten months ago, but what is time anyway?)
I was thinking about this, this less excitement because I bought a new phone this past week. A couple of my friends are on my same Phone Cycle (if you’re the type of person who upgrades technology on an as-needed basis or every three-four years, you probably have a Phone Cycle with someone you know as well. If you’re the type of person who must have a new gadget as soon as it launches, well, I don’t really understand you) so they had gotten new phones just before I did, and I did my usual dithering about which one to get, which boiled down to two, which eventually came down to one, and I am pleased with my decision. I should be—I looked at ONE ZILLION reviews, all saying versions of the same thing, till my eyes crossed. But I am excitable about these things, and so if you follow me on any other of my social media feeds, you’ll probably know I got a new phone because I’ve been banging on about it. But, the thing is, I don’t know if any of my other friends—not just the ones on my Phone Cycle—have new phones or not, because somewhere along the way, we stopped talking about things like new phones or new laptops or new cars. (Unless we’re super rich assholes whose sense of self comes from Ferraris or that one very fancy cellphone that used to be a thing that came with a concierge service, remember? But I don’t follow any super rich assholes, not finding them of interest.) I don’t mean we stopped buying them, as I type this, someone just on my feed is probably getting a new gadget, I mean we seem to have agreed collectively that it’s somehow… not cool to talk about your pleasure in a new thing?
Because I am Very Old, I remember, of course, the pre-cellphone world, the pre-internet world, the pre-when-your-cellphone-connected-to-the-internet world. Actually, all this connection technology stuff only happened in the last twenty years. My first cellphone was a birthday present, age 19, almost exactly twenty years ago, actually. If you are in your twenties, this probably seems almost prehistoric for you. I sometimes think of all the things that have evolved just in my own lifetime and I’m like, “Ooof.” Anyway, twenty years ago, the year 2000, we didn’t have that much choice in our actual devices, but even then, I bucked the crowd, and got a Motorola, when all around me were losing their Nokia devices and blaming it on— (A little Kipling to keep you on your toes.) The Nokia devices were standard, small enough even then to be palmed with one hand, a pleasant heavy heft and a little antenna on top. The charge lasted a week, as did my Motorola, but what I didn’t have and what they did, was the Snake game which they played endlessly.
Airtel, the only network in India, charged for incoming calls and outgoing calls and text messages, so we were the generation that invented the Missed Call, where you call someone and hang up so they have to call you back. We were the first to hack our phones, make them attractive by gluing glitter all over them as they got smaller, by getting little charms to hang off the end. The craze was to have a phone that got tinier and tinier, no antenna, no bulky lines, just phones the size of toy cars that you could palm with one hand and let sit in your pocket with your keys. We invented emoticons, at least, it seemed like we did, we decided that the : + ) looked like a smiley face, see :) or a sad face :( or a kiss :* or an I’m-not-reacting-to-this-just-now face :/
I had asked for a cellphone for my birthday, I was delighted with it, but what I didn’t realise was that I was effectively signing up for a leash. I wish I’d known, one moment before, I lost all my mystery of movement. I wish I’d known I was going to be kissing my beloved cordless landline goodbye. I used that in my argument to convince my parents: “see now you never have to worry about where I am” but oh my god, that’s what I signed up for. I’m always available. When the internet came to cellphones, I rejoiced at this New Future, I wondered what messages not sent via SMS would look like, but again, I didn’t realise the Faustian bargain we were all making. Never again could we disappear for an afternoon. Never again would we wait for letters or only check email once a day or show people something on our own devices or lose our way going somewhere or argue about a fact without immediately having it settled.
I’m sure you watched—or at least heard about—that social media documentary on Netflix that was Flavour of the Month recently. The Social Dilemma, which was a pretty on-the-nose look at how social media is controlling every aspect of your life, oh no. With a mix of fact and fiction, the documentary shows a human being being pushed and pulled along by an algorithm (played by Pete from Mad Men) and how we have zero control over these things, and okay, it was nice, but, in retrospect, not this eye-opening searing indicment of social media it was claiming to be. It was basic. We all know being on social media constantly, 24/7, is bad for us. No one is denying it—the same way smokers know that cigarettes will give them cancer. It’s not new information. But we’re also in the middle of an unforeseen event. We need social media more than ever in 2020 because it is our only way of connecting with the world.
Maybe that’s why I’m thinking of my new phone more than I would be in the past (although I’ve always been excited by these things). It’s larger than my old one—somewhere along the way, cellphone manufacturers did a pivot and now it’s like the dogs in the tinder box story, each one bigger than the next. On its large screen, I look at the world. Through its fancy camera, I take pictures of myself, the cats, the garden, and I post them online so I feel like I’m talking to someone other than myself. I did all these things with my old phone too, but since the tech has changed in the last three years, it feels like I am speeding through the internet in a bullet train, rather than a Bombay local. On my shiny new screen, already smudged with fingerprints, I pull down the Twitter app to refresh it, to see what people are saying. I see more of their tweets, because my screen is bigger. I connect more with the world. I still don’t want to talk to you, but I will double tap on your photo to like it, and I hope you know that means I’m thinking of you and you make me smile.
Links I Loved
Have you been checking out Fifty Two? It’s this online magazine, founded by Supriya Nair and others, which commits to publishing one amazing longform story a week, for the year. Here’s my particular favourite of the four up so far: on India’s history with custard powder. But you should read them all!
I loved this personal essay about the author’s Dalit father and his lockdown relationship with the birds in his garden.
Hilary Mantel on trusting yourself as a writer.
What is fun anymore anyway?
The story of one anonymous man, dying alone in New York City.
The most haunted road in America is really a story about why we need ghost stories.
I’ve only read the first two lines in this because I just opened it but I know it’s going to be good because it’s PATRICIA LOCKWOOD WRITING ABOUT NABOKOV.
Have a great week!
Where am I? The Internet Personified! A mostly weekly collection of things I did/thought/read/saw that week.
Who are you?Meenakshi Reddy Madhavan, writer of internet words (and other things) author of seven books (support me by buying a book!) and general city-potter-er.
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