MR Round Table: Are We Really Having Yet Another Tech Talk?
Why we can’t stop, and what that says about us
Leandra Medine: The cover of last Sunday’s New York Times review section had a story on it called “Stop Googling. Let’s Talk.” Before even reading it, I found myself thinking, “Oh my gosh, I can’t wait to Round Table this.” Then I interrupted myself and was like, Why am I so obsessed with having conversations about the way Generation Y no longer knows how to communicate. Is this an affliction independent to me? Do other people like having this conversation, too? And furthermore, if other people do like having it, is that because we’re looking for an excuse to turn our heads at technology?
Rob Fishman, former editor at Huffington Post, BuzzFeed, and founder of Niche, an app that facilitates the monetization of social media stars’ accounts: It probably speaks to your interpersonal failures as a human being. I’m just kidding. I think in part, it is generational. How much of what we do has to be relegated to things we do on our phones? I always find it strange when you see someone and you’re like, “How was Venice?” But they didn’t tell you they were there. They don’t even have a friend who told you they were there. It was just something you happened to observe on Instagram.
LM: And then the person who was in Venice is like, “Why are you stalking me?” and you’re like, “…That’s information you publicly put out there with the intention of my looking at it.”
RF: Right, or even worse, we become used to people knowing where we are. It’s almost like it was in the news. “Did you see about Leandra’s trip? Looks like she had a great time.”
LM: That’s sort of interesting, right? These feeds are becoming the new tabloid magazine.
RF: Here’s something strange: As a result of Vine and Instagram – there are a bunch of teenagers who are insanely popular. You have to think about how they go to school every day. What is that life? Lele Pons was a sophomore or junior in Florida and she became the most watched Viner in the world. All of her Vines are about typical high school situations, which is really interesting. They’ll cover, you know, when your teacher calls on you when you’re sleeping, or when you’re late for school — little situational things. Is she saying, “Hey, this is what a normal high school student is like, and I’m not that, but I can kind of relate to that?” Or is she trying to connect with them? It’s weird to be someone who is as followed as Tom Cruise in high school.
LM: This actually lends itself really well to the injection of that ridiculous story that was in the last issue of New York Magazine with Donald Trump on the cover, about that sixteen-year-old girl who has seven thousand Instagram followers. It was a classic tale of Upper East Side Gossip Girl who’s popular possibly because of Instagram.
RF: What’s interesting is — I bet you every high schooler in the country knows or has a friend of a friend who’s a social media star. Like, “Oh yeah! He goes to the high school across from me!” When we were growing up, the popular kid was the best athlete. If you look at a lot of these kids now, in some ways they’re wimpy.
LM: Which is essentially just a note on the way in which culture is deciding who’s cool and who’s not.
RF: Right, but your phones per this point become the medium through which decisions are made. I would never know about these kids if I didn’t have Vine, and neither would kids all over the world. So the fact that they’re glued to their phone all day has made them globally popular.
Amelia Diamond: I don’t want to take us too off topic, but I think there are two interesting points here. One is how this Vine world — which forces you to be on your phone (or computer) to consume it — is a detachment from reality. And the other is the idea of being relatable, or needing to relate with each other, which is why Vine stars are popular. They connect. All those, “When you’re in class, but you’re really asleep”-type memes, they make everyone go, “Been there,” or, “That’s me.” I would also argue that the kids who are popular online are not “popular” at school. I think that they reached out to the online community in the same way that I–
LM: I did!
AD: That everyone does to find their own communities. But I think the only reason why I’m saying this is because I read about one Vine kid who doesn’t have a lot of friends at school and yet is insanely popular on social media. So it’s a new kind of popularity with an added layer. But is it more real or more fake? At least when you’re popular on Vine, it’s typically because you’re funny.
RF: I actually think that this is the crux of the issue. If you look at this idea of being detached from reality…there’s been celebrities who grew up in a small town, became stars, moved to LA, and suddenly were detached from reality. You read about them in the papers – you wouldn’t recognize their life before the detachment. I think the question the article posed is: has the advent of these technologies made us all detached from reality?
LM: Or furthermore, is this the new reality?
RF: Right. Has reality shifted to this new plane? We all have these friends and strangers liking our photos. That never happened before. You never had this built-in audience, which I think is really what that article is saying: is everyone leaving behind their reality and becoming detached?
LM: My argument would be: if everyone is doing something that becomes the new normal, then that becomes the new version of reality. So it’s not really detachment anymore.
RF: Well, then we’re in The Matrix, right? Where everyone’s bodies are attached to some main frame underground and these idealized conceptions of you interact. You become an avatar of yourself that you present, but it’s not you.
LM: I’m also thinking about the people who use those body-morphing apps that make them look thinner than they really are, but they’re very unapologetic and transparent about using the apps in person. It makes sense! Because how many people see you in person? Like, not even a quarter of the people who see you online.
RF: There’s that scene in The Matrix where the guy is eating a steak, and he says something like, “I know this is fake but it still tastes good so I don’t really care that it’s not real.” And I think that’s true — I don’t think anybody really believes that celebrities are dating each other all the time. But it’s entertainment. Our friends have become our entertainment. What’s more interesting? Hearing about a friend’s two-week trip and looking through their carousel of slides or seeing three photos where they thought they looked the coolest. Like yeah, that’s a little detached from reality: it’s filtered, maybe they make themselves skinnier, even — but it’s better for the audience.
A: It’s life, edited. That part’s fine. The problem is that if we weren’t having this exact conversation right now making us self-conscious about using our phones – actually, Leandra and I can’t use our phones because they’re recording this, and you’re probably in pain because you’re trying to be polite and not looking at your phone – but if we were just friends having a casual breakfast, there’s no shot that we wouldn’t have picked up our phones a few times by now.
The Times article said that high school kids live by a three-person rule. If there are at least three people at the table engaged in conversation, then you get the silent nod to go detach and look down at your phone. You’re momentarily excused. That’s the weird part to me. It’s not about the separate, digital lives we all live and how that blurs our reality, because I think that’s now inevitable; it’s the fact that they interrupt your day to day life and what’s happening in real time.
LM: The question is whether or not this is sustainable. Do we hit a wall?
RF: The time that’s sad and scary is when you’re with your best friends and still doing that. It’s one thing if you’re at a conference and you’re bored and your phone is a means of escape, but when you’re with your significant other, your best friends or your family and you’re still on your phone…why?
LM: This complicates personal live so much. Because you could be sitting at a table with your boyfriend or husband and he could be having an affair while you’re with him!
AD: You wouldn’t even be like, “Who are you texting?” You’d be like, “Oh great. Let me check my texts, too!”
LM: That seems to present a challenge. Amelia and I were just talking about anxiety and how we both struggle with it, and I was saying that I think millennials have taken to working out because it’s the only time we get “me time” now. Manicures and pedicures and blow outs are not “me time” anymore because you’re on your phone, right? When you’re exercising you can’t be on your phone. And that’s also might be why people are taking to meditation.
RF: Even with Burning Man — you’re not on your phone.
LM: All of these retreats! You check in, you give your phone up. People are hungry for that. That’s why I wonder whether or not it’s sustainable. Or if it just opens up a band-aid — a new avenue of business that reacts to the problem (gym class, meditation, retreats) instead of solving it.
AD: I would love if we all somehow turned off – but everyone would have to agree to do it. Everyone in the whole world would have to not be on their phones, or else you’d get left behind.
RF: I think there’s also this pretense that it’s for work. Which is true, but work and personal lives have become so intermingled. Most people, when you ask what they’re doing on their phones, say they’re emailing. You wouldn’t admit that you’re bored in the conversation and therefore talking to a friend. I certainly respond to emails faster because I have my phone all the time. A lot of them aren’t urgent. Even the notion of a push notification on your iPhone: you’re literally getting things pushed at you! Think of that word, right? Your phone’s saying you got a text message, you got an email, you got three new likes. And it’s hard to compete with that urgency in the “real world.”
Software on your iPhone is directed to grab your attention. But if you see someone on the street, they’re not like, “Quick update! I went to dinner last night, I’m moving!” The real world stuff ends up taking a back seat.
LM: Right, so that’s funny, because in interpersonal relationships, there’s a lot of communicative masturbation that needs to happen.
RF: Right, you stroke each other’s egos, like, “How are you?” That stuff. On your iPhone you’re not getting all the news, you’re just getting the punch line.
AD: Back to your first question, why we’re so obsessed with talking about our phones all that, I think it’s because it’s the most relatable thing to talk about. That was my other point. All those meme-Instagram accounts. I saw one that was making fun of these very me-memes that said, “Relatable Text Over Funny Picture.”
RF: Yeah, that whole notion that you have to be relatable is kind of scary. Why don’t you go be relatable to the person sitting next to you?
LM: Is relatable is a synonym for authentic here?
AD: Not always. I think you can craft relatable, just like that meme was proving. Whole other convo, but, last night, my friend who does these nightly monologues on Snapchat said something about how gossip sites are now taking screen shots of celebrity Snapchats and posting the screen shots as tabloid updates. She was saying how fucked up that is, because Snapchat is supposed to be the one sacred area where you just let your stuff live for 24 hours, then it’s gone,” and I was like, whoa. Not that Snapchat was safe, but since when is it a place for “news.”
LM: I mean, Snapchat’s not your younger brother’s best-kept secret anymore.
AD: But is Snapchat news?? US Weekly could screenshot one of our pictures because we have a public account and write a story titled, “Man Repeller’s having margaritas!”
RF: It could potentially be screwed up if they stole something you said privately to each other, but if you’re publicly broadcasting something as a story, it seems like fair game.
AD: Creepy. And I’m curious about whether it’s going to get creepier and creepier to the point where it’s not creepy, it’s normal, or if we’re going to revert all the way back to the way things were before smart phones and cell phones. Like, when land lines were all anyone had and you actually had to listen to your voicemails.
RF: If you read ten pages of Infinite Jest as I did, which was written a pretty long time ago, the way people talk to each other is over the television, but they have these avatars that looks like a better version of you – and that kind of forecasted this whole idea, like you were saying, Leandra, of people altering themselves for Instagram, and then you see that there’s a rise in cosmetic surgery and all that. The biggest change I see is that our phones are making us become idealized versions of ourselves. It kind of betrays the human condition, which is that we’re all many-faced and imperfect. You know? You’re not that.
AD: We’re a generation of sharers, and because of that, we try to portray these highly curated, perfect worlds. But technically, it’s always been that way. If you think about it, our grandparents’ generation didn’t talk publicly about divorce or anything “ugly.” Women were never seen without heels or lipstick or their hair done; men weren’t seen in public without their hat. That’s all curated and fake, too.
LM: It hasn’t changed for a different reason, though — because public laments come up all the time, but we talk around them. Think of all the “honest thought pieces” that are being shoved down our throats. 1 in every 100 is honest and authentic, but for the other 99, the issues they address are don’t actually address anything. They yell, “I’m so honest, I’m so honest, I’m so honest!” but don’t actually offer anything.
RF: I think that’s right. It is interesting, though, what you were saying about our grandparents dressing up. If I run into someone on the street they’re usually wearing exercise clothes yet I’ve never seen an Instagram of them wearing their spandex, right?
LM: Right. It’s really funny you say that because something I take great pride in on the Man Repeller’s account page is that it feels like it’s being executed in real time, and for the most part, it is. The pictures are low fi, they’re rarely professionally shot, the videos are silly — I like looking a little disheveled and out of place. Half of the reason I’m building Man Repeller is because I want to recreate what Sex and the City was for me, which was a built-in, relatable best friend that felt very honest. The medium and approach is obviously different, but the sentiment is the same.
AD: Back to initial question again! Why are we inclined to talk about this? Because we all work in this world? I think we’re all talking about it because it’s the most relatable thing to talk about. We all get it and can chime in.
RF: I think for most people it’s a deep look in the mirror and you don’t always like what you see. How many times have my friends or family said, “Get off your phone?” The other day my mom’s friend who’s a docent at the Whitney took us on this tour. I had a bunch of emails to respond to, and in between stops at the paintings I was checking emails. My mom got mad at me, and you know, she was right. Her friend does this for free, and she’s here showing us Jackson Pollock and Jasper Johns and all of these incredible sculptures and if I’m her and I’m looking at this kid typing away at his phone, I’d be like, you’re not present, you’re not appreciating what you’re doing.
LM: Yeah, pulling out your phone is like the new blowing cigarette smoke in someone’s face.
RF: There’s no ruder gesture than looking at your wrist. And people said that when the Apple watch came out, if that was going to become the new norm, then what would that mean about our society?
LM: …Until it’s not rude anymore. But what about when you’re on the other side of that? You’re talking to someone and they’re pulling out their phone. Do you find yourself frustrated? Even though you can sympathize and empathize with what they’re doing?
RF: It’s rude and frustrating and it makes you self-conscious of your habits. One of the things I hate is when people are at a dinner and one person checks their phone and then it becomes this silently agreed upon phone time.
A: Maybe we’re always talking about this stuff because phones and technology are a safe area. You can’t really offend anyone if you write or report or crack jokes about phones and tech.
However, you can offend people on different platforms easier than ever. The author of that article was talking about how people have actually become less inclined to voice an opinion because they know people will gang up on it. The other day this guy was telling me about how he posted a status talking shit about the city he’s from, and how he was completely surprised when everyone on Facebook attacked him under the status. I was thinking, Yeah, you posted it on Facebook. Hello. Even if they weren’t actually pissed, they would’ve been bored, and found a reason to be pissed. Like, don’t post an opinion there, are you kidding? Unless it’s “This cat’s the best,” and even then, someone will be like, “Fuck you, I like dogs,” or, “My cat died, that was super offensive.”
RF: You think people have kind of dumbed down?
AD: No, but I think people are more afraid of voicing opinions now because they know they’ll get attacked, and this article said the same thing. Everyone thought Facebook would encourage conversation and the opposite has happened. But, I think that maybe why everyone’s writing about phone and talking about tech – I’m doing a story about how phones are the new measure of parenthood, like how you’d carry an egg around back in the old days of sex ed — it’s because you can’t get in a fight about it; it’s an easy-going topic. We can all agree because, well it goes back to being relatable. It’s a safe topic.
RF: You’re saying the author in The Times picked a topic where there’s no other side?
A: No, I just think it’s one of the easier topics to cover as a writer.
R: Right, like “Kids are on their phone too much.”
A: Yeah. If you’re trying to figure out what to write about that’s good and true and funny and relatable, phones make for great fodder.
RF: I guess the other side of all of this is asking if it’s actually great that kids are on their phones because they’re more worldly.
LM: That’s exactly what I’m thinking. What’s the defense for our phones?
RF: There are two ways to look at it. They’ve made our lives easier, but have they made our lives better? Yes, it’s incredible that you can hail an Uber anywhere, but it wasn’t that hard to get a taxi before — in New York, at least. I guess if you look at places like San Francisco or Boston where it was really hard to, then in that sense, it’s a utility for us. But that ten minutes you saved looking for a cab, does that materially make your life better? Does knowing what all of your friends are doing all the time make your life better? When you look at all the apps you use everyday, which of them has made you happier?
AD: When my phone dies I am…
AD: Thrilled and – if I’m home, who cares, but if I’m out, it makes me anxious. I’m like, “Well now I can’t meet up with my friend, I don’t know if I’m late, I don’t even know what time it is…”
LM: That’s an interesting question though. What app actually brings joy into your life?
RF: Yeah, when do you feel truly happy?
LM: My notes app makes me feel happy because I write ideas down and that quells the anxiety of thinking I will forget them.
RF: That’s a good example. For people who write, having Google Docs or Evernote or Notes or whatever – I think for the creative generation, your phone is a huge boom. You can make videos on the go, you can take photos, all that fun stuff. I guess the question is more for the casual consumer.
At this point in the conversation, a fourth party approached the table. Amelia and Leandra began speaking to her when…
AD: Rob, are you seriously on your phone right now?
RF: Rule of 3!
Rob Fishman has written a few stories for Man Repeller before, you know. Check out his story on male jeggings, and another on why he won’t buy you a wedding gift. You can also follow him on Instagram and Twitter if you’re not mad about the gift thing.
Photographed by Krista Anna Lewis