I was in the far northwest of Ireland when I really noticed it in its entirety. In an actual castle that had actually been standing since the mid-15th century surrounded by some of the most gorgeous landscape you could ever find, anywhere. It had its own actual pub, fireplaces that had warmed everyone from clan chieftains to famous actresses to actual presidents of actual countries, and we were waiting for our food to be served when the overwhelming and crippling sense of frustration mixed with disgust flavored with ever-so-slightly with contempt that I really, really didn’t want to be feeling, you know, being in an actual castle in the far northwest of Ireland that had an actual…you get the point. We glanced around after noticing an eerie silence in the dining room, despite it being filled with people, and one table at a time saw the very same scene.
Everyone, every single person in the entire castle restaurant and pub, save Sarah and I, was nose-deep in their mobile phone.
Faces aglow in that sickly blue-light that pulses and shifts with each scene change on whatever TikTok video they happen to be watching, some even went as far as to seat themselves nearest to a visible outlet, toting their own charging cables for their phones (or iPads, as we indeed saw two families with multiple children all on their own iPads or Kindle Fires or whatever the new shit is that kids just gotta have) so they never had to fear running out of the battery they so desperately sewed their emotional well-being to.
Their ages varied, as this observation does not lead to the pointing of fingers at a specific demographic, and we watched in horror as elderly couples that clearly had a lot of money and were easily in their 80s spoke not a word to one another, though they were dressed in their Sunday finest. We saw toddlers mindlessly stuffing chicken goujons and triple cooked chips into their mouths without a single glance away from their cartoons on their glowing screens, their parents scrolling aimlessly, her with her index finger, him with his middle digit, neither speaking, neither even knowing we were watching. We saw a young couple on what looked to be a first, or maybe second, date, ask to be moved so they could have the antique chairs by the corner of the room, an outlet by each, and before they even sat we saw the tell-tale white cords spill out from pockets and purses, heard the familiar click of charging, and felt the sorrow rise in our throats with each inch their necks fell forward. Maybe 100 words were spoken between them over the course of the night, mostly to share the video they just saw, the “you-had-to-be-there” humor that apparently exists even when it’s a video, and apparently when you’re only feet away from one other.
We saw it there, that rainy beautiful night in Ireland, we saw it in the airports, the train stations, the concerts, the movie theaters. We saw it here, too, my goodness probably even more so here, at high school sporting events, at movie nights held in family living rooms. We’ve seen it at restaurants, grocery stores, we’ve seen it on top of the most unbelievable vistas on the Isle of Skye, and we’ve seen it while trying to hold a conversation with someone two feet away from us. It’s this pull, this glow that’s sucking us in like a villain in a Doctor Who episode, trapping us inside the glass confines we tote around with such reliance, and it’s stealing our wonder.
I’m waiting for the OK Boomer! or whatever it is the kids yell these days at old people making statements only old people make, and that’s ok. Just because I’m saying it, just because it isn’t comfortable, doesn’t mean I’m wrong. No one at that ill-fated Irish castle dinner said please or thank you to a single employee that served them, almost no one looked up from their phone while ordering, and the few that did still had their phone in their hand, one eye up, one eye down on the world beneath that ballistic glass screen and cute case. I’m saying all this here, now, because we’re at the start of something here, aren’t we? We’re at the first few pages of a brand new book that is 2024, and maybe if we just talk about the hard shit here, now, we can write a different story this time around.
Maybe this time, this story, can be one of less distraction.
Maybe we can start small, leave our precious devices on a countertop in a separate room, maybe we can go on walks without it, maybe we can make a rule that only we can enforce upon ourselves that when we have those insanely rare moments of actual time and space to breathe, to think, to feel, we take them, and we put our phones away. I read an article the other day that spoke of how if we wish to truly remember the moments we’re in, oddly, we have to take less photos, if any at all. You must know I’m serious here, if I am telling you to stop taking photos, hell, it pays my bills and keeps me feeding my family, but dammit something has to give. What’s even more heartbreaking, is that as much as I’d love to say it’s the photos that keeps people reaching for their phones, it’s not, and we know it’s not. It’s this desperate need for the dopamine hit that comes with each Like on our post, each view of our video, each reshare or reTok (that’s probably not a thing but who cares) or tweet or story or selfie or Snap. It’s this automatic response to some insane condition we’ve all had inflicted upon us by some conglomerate of narcissistic billionaires that only started the companies they started because they were sad and lonely and sat in dorm rooms or garages probably wishing more people would have been kind to them.
I don’t know the answer to this problem we’re all facing, I don’t know how to fix what’s happening, to put the toothpaste back in the tube, and perhaps there isn’t one. Perhaps this panic is our generational panic, and it truly is my age that is the thing skewing my viewpoint, just like color television would be the end of our parents generation, rock&roll music their parents before them. Maybe this is my “violent video games and that damned MTV” that I’m to raise my fists and shake them wildly about, but I don’t think so.
Never before have I seen so many people morph into the zombies we’ve all been so afraid will one day show up so effortlessly, so gently, so, and this is probably the scariest of all, silently. That’s where it is, in the end, the great quiet that has descended in a room where everyone is staring down into a phone instead of across the table at the person they are with, instead of out into the wide, wild, gorgeous world just beyond it.
We sat in that dining room without once touching our phones, without even remembering we had them, soaking in the smells of peat burning in a cavernous fireplace that was there centuries before Instagram, and will be there centuries after it, and we spoke to one another, we held each others hands, we ate good food made by good people and we listened to the rain pelt down on the leaded glass windows. We learned about the people who brought us our food, we fell a little more in love with their accents, and once finished, we walked out into the downpour, and explored a little more.
We’re not perfect, far from it, we get lost in doomscrolling and worrying about our following, how it’ll change our ability to reach our potential customers, how we’ll stay afloat and put food on our table if everyone stops engaging. I worry about how I’m losing 1,000 followers a month on a platform that clearly prioritizes its profits over its people, and I watch as my screen time crawls higher than I wish it would. But I’m trying, but I’m here, but I want to be different.
I’m starting here, putting the phone down and leaving it behind. I’m gonna walk without it, like I used to do, wandering footsteps into a great big forest, part of a great big world, that has no use for the blue light glow that comes too early and stays around too late. I’m putting it away, now, at the start of things, and I’m going to notice more, hear more, listen more, write more, and get back to the basics that make this life so stunning. Here’s to absorbing more art, to reading things that truly matter (and I so hope you think this place, this Signal Fire falls in that category), and to relating to one another again.
It’s stolen our wonder too long, and I think it’s time we steal it back. We’ve got one shot at this thing, in this skin, something I’ve said time and time and time again, and I’m pretty sure we’re built for more magic than whatever the algorithm could possibly queue up next.
Here’s to it, the year that’s here, the year of less distraction, the year of better connection, the year of the basics we’ve been so desperate to go back to.
The glow that pulls us,
rips us from the everywhere
and steals our wonder.
Song of the Week
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