Partying like It's 1986

Friday, September 06, 2013 - 02:01 PM

(I Forgot My Phone/Youtube)

In Guelph, Ontario, a family has committed themselves to not using any technology invented after 1986. 

For one year, they won't use, nor allow their kids to use, most of the devices we take for granted: smartphones, GPS devices, computers. The Toronto Sun profiled them, and the heart of the article is this reverential portrait of Technology Back Was When it Was Benign: 

They do their banking in person instead of online. They develop rolls of film for $20 each instead of Instagramming their sons’ antics ...Instead of a TV, the minimally furnished living room – which looks like a floor model plan from a vintage store – has a large centered window that looks out onto the leafy neighbourhood. A book shelf rests in one corner and a bright pink cassette player sits on top of a wooden trunk. 

It feels like we're living in moment of sharper-than-usual nostalgia for pre-Internet life. Take also the extremely viral I Forgot my Phone video that's been passed around the past couple weeks. 

It's not super hard to suss out the chord it's striking. A bunch of scenes of people using their phones in rude, jerk-y ways: At a concert! While kissing on the beach! While their friends are bowling!

The video's twenty million plus views suggest that most human beings agree with the underlying sentiment here, which is that we should disconnect from our devices and try to live in the moment and enjoy more face-to-face, uninterrupted human connection. It's a hard sentiment to disagree with, which is why I was surprised to find myself feeling aggravated by it.

The video feels unfair the same way advertisements often feel unfair. It's not that it's wrong on its surface, but there's some underlying message that you have to articulate before you can even disagree with it. But for starters, it'd be nice if we could acknowledge that our devices don't compel us to stare at them. In fact, there's an entire etiquette around how and when to use a mobile device, and the people who eschew that etiquette are rude. If your peers use their phones rudely, stop hanging out with them! And certainly, if you find yourself, like the protagonist of I Forgot My Phone, with a boyfriend who quietly stares at his iPhone while you're in bed with him, chastise and/or dump him. It seems disingenuous to blame technology for the ways people use it. 

Nathan Jurgenson, who writes about humans and technology really well, summed up the underlying premise that I think is so crazy-making here

This isn’t about the problems of digital connection, it’s about propping oneself up as more human and alive. By identifying with and sharing the video, we can put ourselves in the protagonist’s shoes. I too recognize this! I am human and deep and carpe diem. But let’s consider the implication of showing others as robots who don’t live in the moment: you are basically saying they are less human in order to assert how above the unthinking-cellphone-zombie masses you are. Human connection, togetherness, and in-the-moment experience isn’t going away, indeed, we cherish it more than ever. Rad. But, then, more than that, we’ve become obsessed with it, treating the real as a fetish object, all in the name of appealing to the deeply conservative impulse to rank who is more or less human. 



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Comments [11]

Rafael from Kalamazoo - MI

Good thing they're in Canada eh? I think the US IRS now requires e-file for every tax return (no more paper mail) and it's not compatible with Windows 3.1! I think about ditching technology every day and would LOVE LOVE LOVE not to have a cell phone, computer, Internet but my job requires it. The Internet is hard to beat so if I were on a deserted island the one thing I'd want to have with me is a computer with Internet access :-)

Sep. 15 2013 01:02 PM

Here is an interesting exercise and one that is probably just as well thought out: how about partying as if it were 1986 ....B.C.?

Sep. 15 2013 08:02 AM
LMagay from New Hampshire

I think this is an interesting exercise but I doubt that this family will be able to function well enough to get by in today's techno world. Think of banking, paying bills, leisure time, communication with family and friends all without electronic useage. I wouldn't be surprised if there isn't some rebellion in the family, maybe even a little "sneaking in some technology" somewhere along the way. I am not sure that this can even be successful. There are bound to be fights around even the most routine day-to-day functions, like communication. "What time will you be home for dinner?" will have to be discussed before you leave for work/school.

Sep. 09 2013 11:12 AM
ctb from FL

Agreeing about the irresistability of our current technology - anybody else remember a report/story on an NPR program about how every time you get a text, your brain is squirting out a bit of dopamine, just like for a drug? I notice many of the young people I'm around, tho absolutely opposed to drugs &/or alcohol, don't seem to be aware of their tech-tethered behavior as rudeness - they just do not seem to be able to resist the allure.

As an older adult, it's easier for me to stay out of the loop, so I try not be too judgemental of others w/ what seems like weaker willpower - still pretty amusing to see the effects, tho - @ the beach recently, saw all the people near me holding up their smartphones to capture a beautiful sunset, while I stood there, phoneless using my own eyeballs to enjoy it.

Sep. 08 2013 10:53 AM
Sean from Ireland

I'm not sure I agree with your take on the meaning of this video. The title is: I Forgot My Phone. What's depicted here isn't someone who doesn't own a phone, it's someone who left it somewhere for a while. And when she does she notices how cut off it makes her. I take each of these scenes as moments between when she has a phone. Then, when she has her phone again, she acts like everyone else. This is why she wouldn't chastise or dump her boyfriend; she is the same as him when the phone is there.

That is SO weird for us who remember days before phones, but it seems to be something which pulls you in. Couple years back, before owning a smartphone, I was sitting with male and female friends in a bar. The gals left briefly together, leaving me with the guys. Immediately, without a word between them, each took out their phone and started looking at it, ignoring everyone else. The other day, in a bar with the same gang, I realised I was doing what the guys were doing then. So, incidentally, were two of the women with us (probably just a coincidence last time).

I wonder, though, if there are period variants of this? E.g., in 1986, what thing did everyone have/do that, lacking it, you'd be suddenly outside the social group (not watching Alf, maybe?).

Sep. 08 2013 06:38 AM

No, John, that sounds appropriately ironic. If you made a video of yourself watching that video on your phone to the exclusion of important life/socialization events -- that would cross the line in terms of irony.

Sep. 07 2013 10:50 AM
John Metcalf from Midland, MI

Is it too ironic to watch the "I forgot my Phone" YouTube video on my phone?

Sep. 07 2013 09:33 AM
Matt C

I disagree about the mobile devices. They DO compel us to look at them (advertisers have known and used this for years, and unless I'm misunderstanding something, most tech gadgets use more colors than the human eye even sees).
I agree that it's about HOW the tech is being used, and that shifts the blame from the individual (and being "less human" which, in my opinion, sounds like a straw man) to the system/paradigm. It's about how we've been conditioned to use these devices, and how that mixes with the modern way of thinking about ourselves (again conditioning). It seems that an increasing number of americans think that they are the most interesting person in the world, or that they are an island so everyone should pay attention to them (and everything that goes wrong is a personal attack on them) and not the other way around.

Sep. 06 2013 10:06 PM

computer and video gaming existed in 1986 so why ditch the computer get a reto computer up and running. Make them deal with long load times of reading games from cassette tape and having to flip a floppy. that are just go cartridge based with a dedicated gaming console like the Atari 7800

Sep. 06 2013 03:31 PM

Irv, could not agree with you more. They could've watched the hell out of Alf, season 1.

Sep. 06 2013 03:27 PM

it would have been better if the 1986 family had a tv, but only watched shows from 1986 and prior. after all, there was tv in 1986.

Sep. 06 2013 03:24 PM

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TLDR is a short podcast and blog about the internet by Meredith Haggerty. You can subscribe to the TLDR podcast here. You can follow our blog here. I tweet @manymanywords and @tldr.

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