Of Focus and Technology

Brace yourself: I have discovered an American middle-class couple who leave their phones on the kitchen table when they work elsewhere in the house or in their yard, and they do not check them when they come back. They also turn their phones off at night, and when they leave the house to go out, sometimes for the whole day, they leave their phones behind.

“If I take it with me, someone might call,” the husband says.

That should be the end of this post, but let me press on.

The husband is also a fan of old movies. He records them and plays them back later, often in the background while reading a book. I was sitting on his couch and did not know whether to look at the screen or at him.

Then I fell into watching After the Thin Man, a 1936 romantic mystery with William Powell, Myrna Loy, and Jimmy Stewart. After getting past the usual things that jar—sound quality, black-and-white film, the surprising number of men in that society who said, “Yeah, see”—I began to realize how contemporary it felt. The focus is on how Powell and Loy have each had their own rich lives but have come together in love, so now they get to have adventures in each other’s realms. Relationships and events are what they have, what they do all day, along with enjoying lots of socialite money and making quips while a bad guy shoots at them as they hide behind a wicker basket.

There was something missing in what was portrayed, but I could not name it at first. They use a phone when they need to, and the bad guy does foil a plan by tying up a public phone booth, but these are done naturally and mean little beyond a plot point. And then I had it: There was no focus on or emotional consequence to communications technology.

(I would say to technology at all, but someone would point out that handguns, trains, cars, and electric lights are all technology. Fair enough. San Francisco, where the film is set, was the first city in the United States to have a central generating station for grid customers, but that was still only 1879. Many in the city in 1936 would have remembered life without that luxury, so a soft focus on glamorous nightclubs lit up like heaven is to be expected.)

This is different from the weird (to us now) focus on technologies that have become banal in the decades since their invention. Upton Sinclair starts his 1926 novel Oil!, the basis for the 2007 film There Will Be Blood, with a long paean to driving a car. “I can’t believe I’m sitting here doing nothing while I’m flying down this road at breakneck speed,” the first chapter seems to say. “And just look how close those oncoming cars are to me when they pass!”

I have noticed that older people on The Palpitator, the apparently suspensionless shuttle bus at Wash U, often do not look at smartphones as they ride.

This sounds like a generational difference but is a neutral observation, if only because motion sickness lies that way. Younger people, who have always had phones in the texture of their lives, seem impervious. And besides, what is of more interest or value, digital riches or the differences in bricks of the homes along Forsyth Avenue?

Subscribe to our "Mixed Issue" email newsletter!