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THE FIRST REFUSAL
How The Tech Consumer was Consumed
We weren’t what magazines would one day call “early adopters” of technology. The opposite. We lived in Minnesota’s St. Croix river valley on a ragged forty-acre farm, a rolling patch of corn and pasture land with a sagging red barn and stands of maple trees, which we tapped each spring for syrup. We tried raising hens for eggs but lost control of them, allowing them to lay in bushes and woodpiles. The eggs brought forth roosters which grew up vicious and murdered one another in the yard. We owned an old iron tractor, a Farmall M, whose long, bent gearshift I could barely budge, but most of our farm work was done with Belgian horses using implements bought in Wisconsin’s Amish country. They hulked in their stalls like tanks at feeding time, bowing their great heads to reach the trough. One summer evening when I was sixteen, the larger, more dominant member of the team adjusted its footing and pinned me against a wall, compressing my lungs against my spine. “That was life,” I remember thinking. “Now you die.” Then the horse shifted back, my flattened ribs expanded, and just like that my last breath became my first.
It was all my father’s doing. He believed our family should live simply. Like many men of a certain romantic temperament in the 1970 -- men who wore moustaches, owned hiking gear, had grown up reading Kerouac, and liked red wine – he’d decided the world was too mechanized, too soft, too detached from the animal self and from the earth. A chemical engineer and patent lawyer, a graduate of an Ivy League university, he could afford this dreamy backward step into non-profit intimacy with the land. Leviathan draft horses cost a lot to keep and trips to Wisconsin to haggle over seed drills burn a lot of gas, and time.
Conditions inside our house were less austere than they were in the farm yard. My mother insisted. She had a dishwasher and a new microwave, though we used it infrequently, fearing radiation. Our TV was a black-and-white Philco, a dying brand, but one weekend a Sony color model appeared. My father, a former college football player, wished to watch the Rose Bowl in its full splendor. But that was where he drew the line. No air conditioners. No stereo. Heat from a wood stove with claw-shaped feet. Sometimes I sat beside it in the winter and gazed out the window at the steaming horses, the violent, demonic roosters, the outhouse we used when the toilet clogged or broke, and cursed my father for trapping us in time. I resolved to charge forward once I was on my own. Come and get me, progress.
And it did.
Each thing was a version of something I’d had before, but smaller and more portable. A wearable tape-player with headphones, then a similar unit that used CDs, then one that stored music on a chip. A desk-top computer that replaced my typewriter, then a laptop, then a thinner laptop. This procession of devices, including a phone I could keep inside my pocket, changed my life very little or not at all. Then I bought a Blackberry. Now I didn’t have to speak to people when I wished to advise them of my whereabouts or inquire about theirs. I could send a text instead. I still remember the feeling of that advance, a feeling of detached efficiency, a sense that I too was becoming a sort of gadget. Around this time I wrote a novel, Up in the Air, about a traveling businessman caught in the middle of this transformation from earthbound social being to lonesome particle.
But it wasn’t until the arrival of the iPhone that I well and truly left the farm. Invisibly financed through something called a “plan,” the phone led me onward, almost against my will, into a series of upgrades and new features I hadn’t asked for and seldom used. I gave myself over to this suction; to resist it felt like deliberate self-exile from a promised land of power and freedom. But unforeseen annoyances resulted.
The first time a girlfriend rolled over after sex to read an e-mail, then send one, too.
The time in a bar when I spoke to the man next to me, thinking he’d asked me a question about something, only to realize he had a Bluetooth earpiece and was talking to someone else.
The time I flew two-thousand miles to New York City to pitch magazine pieces to a group of editors, none of whom looked at me after the first ten minutes – too busy checking sports scores.
The time another girlfriend, a jealous type, doubtful about my whereabouts one evening, asked me to take a picture of my location and forward it to her, which, sadly enough, I did.
I’ll always remember the first time I saw a young couple on a date ignoring each other for their screens. A little ethnic restaurant on Sunset Boulevard, the two of them facing each other in a booth, their tilted faces tinted electron-blue. I wondered which one of them had retreated first and how the other one had felt about it -- or was their parting agreed on and simultaneous? The waitress arrived with two plates and set them down, but the couple didn’t acknowledge the act of service. Their food cooled while they scrolled. The scene especially distressed me because, to my eye, the date was the couple’s second or third and their body language suggested they hadn’t had sex yet. I’d have thought they’d be driving harder toward this pleasure, not letting it sit there untasted, like their meals.
But there was no resisting the pull. Each fall, when a new phone was introduced, a kind of patriotic shout went up. The phones made the country richer, the theory went, more productive, more in synch, and eventually a grand idea emerged: someday humans would merge with these devices. It didn’t make sense to me. When the hammer was invented, or the pen, was the logical next step attaching them to our arms? Then again: hearing aids. Why not thinking aids? One Christmas, VR goggles hit the news (tour the wonders of Egypt from your couch!) and though they failed to catch on immediately, neither did they disappear. I imagined someday the goggles would find their way to me. My phone company had automated the process. In my father’s time, contemplating these sort of purchases was a fitful, prolonged affair which often resulted in no purchase at all, but Verizon and Apple had largely solved this problem. It was, perhaps, a greater innovation than the mobile internet itself: a veritable lifetime hookup to a rolling succession of new products – products almost like no other, because they hosted copious ads and stories promoting their own desirability.
I the consumer was being consumed.
The technologies changed, but the sales pitch remained the same. Empowerment. Help in working my will. I could memorialize my life in photos, make new “friends” and keep in touch with old ones, pore through the history of all human knowledge, and pay my bills online. In return, I would lose large portions of my days to addictive loops of vain amusement, create a compendious record of my activities that could be exploited by unseen forces, and open myself to surveillance by government powers. As ever, I took the deal. I took it out of inertia and convenience and because I told myself that if the time came, I could always reject it or adjust.
The time has come.
I knew it had come when the COVID vaccination, as helpful and quick as it may have seemed at first, quite rapidly came to resemble the subscription plans that had sold me all those phones over the years. There would not be one shot. Or two. Or three. This was the iVax, a forever med, and almost certainly just the first of many, since other, fiercer bugs would follow this one, our leading reality managers agreed. To track compliance with the subscription programs and other, associated directives concerning our movements, social contacts, and whatever else might prove of interest to the Caretaking Elite, my tech devices would serve as perfect informers, particularly once their functions were integrated with countless sensors embedded throughout our world. The devices no longer empowered, they entrapped – and to think I’d paid for them myself! Sold as keys, they worked even better as locks. And soon, I could feel it, they’d all click shut at once.
It won’t be as simple to downgrade as to upgrade – the culture discourages it; it’s heresy; we’re supposed to see tech as an ever-rising line, not a cycle that can peak and fall – but I’m determined to do my best, to open a margin of freedom for myself, however slight, however temporary. That night on the farm when the draft horse almost crushed me, convincing me sixteen years was all I’d get on earth, the astonishing gift of my returning breath stirred such gratitude I shouted. I think I shouted, “Yes!” I don’t remember. I do recall, though, how suffocation feels, and powerlessness over a giant, careless beast. I couldn’t push it off. I couldn’t budge it. My arms were pinned. My vision was turning grey. I knew it was moments away from going dark.
I prefer not to think about it, but now I must.