On my way home from work this week I sat at the lights in my car and watched a little girl of about three in a pink tutu hold her mother’s hand as they waited to cross the street. The little girl was bouncing and jiggling and I could see her lips moving. Her mother was looking intently. At her phone. She was scrolling and then she did a one hand text yet the little girl’s lips kept moving, her hands kept pointing. The mother didn’t look her daughter’s way once.
The little girl in the pink tutu was in that space reserved for humans next to anyone who is busy on their phone: she was physically there, but in Apple Land. It’s a kind of purgatory for people who have done nothing wrong. A strange land where you can talk but no one hears you; where you touch but no-one feels you; where you stand tall but no-one can see you.
You only go to Apple Land for a minute, or a ‘Just a sec’, or ‘C’mon, I just need to send one work text’, or ‘I just need to check this’ (Apple Land is full of ‘just’ trees). But all those just-a-minutes add up, and I’m starting to think that each time you get sent to this very new land you fade away a little bit more until, perhaps, you can never fully come back together.
"I'm in my home with my family but I'm not really here." Image via E!
I know this mum was probably busy. We all are (that's why our phones have become "our lives"). The little girl had her daycare backpack on and it was night and there are things to do, dinners to think of, life to live.
I sat in my car and watched the little girl talking to no-one and thought that's what it looks like when I do that to my kids and now I'm going to go home to walk around my house and sigh at my three girls bathed in the apple glow who are going to tell me:
"I just need to find out who is the President of Indonesia."
"I promise I just got on."
"We're group messaging about Geography."
Mamamia staff member Jessie Stephens gave up her phone for one week. Here's what happened.
And now I'm in Apple Land - I'm in my home with my family but I'm not really here. At least to the most important people in my life. This is when I want to blame someone. Yes, there is homework going on, at other times I can hear James Corden driving a celebrity around in a car, the blips of a game with the volume turned down low, the ping of Facebook messenger and Snapchat (and I know that somewhere in the history there will be a Kardashian doing something that I will think is actually a human being doing nothing).
For children of 2016, my kids are good with their screens, they haven't taken over their worlds. But still...I truly hate all those slimy, shiny rectangles. I hate having to police my own house. I hate that they are portals to anywhere. I look at them sometimes and just want to smash them. I hate that I'm literally (as a Kardashian would say) burning up with hate heat.
Most of all I hate that they separate my family and me. Everyone can now run off and do their own thing, tap into what they love best and it's hard to take people away from what they love doing. But I do. Every night. I pull at my family with strings of conversation, hopefully laughter (can go terribly wrong), dinner (not always great I admit), maybe a communal TV show (I've even bought a 3000 piece puzzle) and just being together.
I truly hate all those screens. I hate having to police my own house. Image via 20th Century Fox.
Sometimes, the snag on all those strings pulling together - and all of us coming together - is not the kids. It's me. I'm walking around the house with that phone in my hand. Checking something. Automatically scrolling down something else. Just the weight of it is comforting. I'm telling myself that I can do two things at once. I'm telling myself no-one is noticing.
I take this small rectangle into whatever room I'm in and one of my kids will jokingly call me out for "being addicted to a screen" and "I can't talk" and that's when I can see that these small, constant moments of deliberate blocking of loved ones, of hot and cold, of 'just wait', of no eye contact, of scattered interest, create tiny pin pricks in a family that one day is sure to make a hole. And crossing that to be together, I imagine, could be very, very hard.
Apple et al have made their products so good, and we have been so quick to pick them up, stroke them with our thumbs and make them central to our lives, that we don't even see what those beeping, metallic, glowing rectangles have pushed out of their way. They've pushed us.
Screens physically and psychologically separate people. Like Dorothy's red shoes they offer everyone their dream with three clicks, but it's a lonely dream where there is room for only one person to stand in the light.
At work I sit next to a 22-year-old who lives in a shared house and I naively asked about what TV programs they liked to watch. She looked at me. They don't have a TV. They click what they want on their own screens. In their bedrooms. So I asked what if they wanted to watch something together.
"We put a laptop on our lap."
"Can three of you watch?"
"Not really. You don't do it that often."
"So you all watch what you want in your own rooms?"
'They don't have a TV. They click what they want on their own screens.' Image via HBO.
And I remember being 22 and living in Sydney for the first time and my two flatmates and I rolling around couches stiff with chip crumbs, laughing at something, or crying, or dissecting why that boy didn't call back or eating tomato pasta for the 125th time. If we didn't go out, we came together.
Now we don't need to come together. That is the gift technology has given us. One huge, smorgasbord of infinite choice where we can find something we want to do, or watch, or even be, wherever we are. We have become our own best company - or we simply slip away into the warm oblivion of that screen. We have created technology that effortlessly connects the world, and just as effortlessly separates us.
And every day I fight that separation. Every day I worry that I'm not sending my kids the right messages (in person not on Facebook messenger). Every day I feel a resentment to technology that only grows. Every day I wonder where this electronic individualism is all heading.
Because I know that despite the millions of people who are regularly sent to Apple Land it's lonely and cold there. It hurts. It's full of people talking but no-one listening. Full of people fading away. Full of children and adults waiting for the people they love or they like to simply look up from their screens and say, "Come here".