I got my first “smart” phone a few weeks ago, about a year after all my friends started communicating through emojis, which my old slider translated into gibberish. We upgraded only because it was cheaper to switch providers than pay our standard bills, and my gentle and patient father had come to choice words with the existing network’s customer service reps. (And by choice words, I mean he used his “go to your room” voice with someone other than his offspring.) The transition was irksome, mostly because my semi-Luddite parents struggle with basic technological operations. It took my mother a full year to figure out she could adjust the volume on her previous phone without going to the sound settings menu. Being a digital native, with few memories of life before the internet, I am their default IT support, so purchasing new phones also meant signing on for an indefinite on-call shift. Though I’m now in a different time zone, so the burden has shifted to the other siblings.
I moved to Cairo, Egypt about two weeks ago, so I’m extra thankful for my shiny LG Optimus because the international texting provision on our new service allows me immediate access from Heliopolis to friends scattered around the continental U.S. I have a basic work phone with an Egyptian number, but it’s the Optimus that I check constantly for texts and snapchats and instagrams that remind me of home. It’s my camera and my internet connection and my calendar and my Arabic dictionary. I’m a bit ashamed of how often I check it, honestly. Particularly because I’ve railed against smartphones in the past. In December 2012, I returned from a largely internet-less semester in the Cascades to discover that when I went out with friends to catch up, their flickering iPhone screens guarded the table between us. Irritated, I declared that these were a worldly luxury of the “lead me not into temptation” variety, eroding our ability to be present with one another, diminishing our attention spans, atrophying our brains, distracting drivers, prohibiting solitude, harbring-ing the utter downfall of society.
To an extent, I still believe this (minus the drama of previous doomsday predictions). While writing my honors thesis last fall, I encountered Jacques Derrida’s différance , an exploration of the concept of deferred meaning, and plays on its homophony with the word for difference in Derrida’s native French. We understand words by contrast, which means that a term’s meaning cannot be fully realized, because it’s always fluctuating in response to the terms by which it is defined. It’s tied up in poststructuralist theory and language as unstable system of signifiers… but I digress. Point being, the concept of différance is disturbingly applicable to my post-grad life. Derrida suggests that the absence and presence of meaning exist in the text simultaneously. Literal absence and presence can as well. The very fact that I am writing this blog post implies that I am physically removed from my audience, unable to discuss millenials with all of you in person. And yet, my words convey a presence of sorts. I make appearances in my parents’ life, in the day-to-day routines of my friends. My words and pictures pop up on screens of all sizes. So, as is often the way of things, they are both signifiers of my absence and presence. I am both absent and present. I am with those I love, via my smartphone. I am also decidedly far, far away.
And my silicone-encased android embodies both the joy and impotence of those connections. This particular lifeline offers new possibilities and underscores universal limitations. My parents can ask me for technological assistance at any time of day or night, but I can’t demonstrate how to upload photos in person. I can giggle at a friend swatting at a bee in her snapchat video, but I’m no closer to the porch where she’s re-reading Harry Potter. I can text good nights and good mornings, but I’m still seven or eight or ten hours ahead of their recipients, quite possibly living another day altogether. Sometimes it’s achier, almost, to reach the asymptote of our togetherness so quickly. So I have mixed feelings about the smartphone, because I have mixed feelings about most things—that gosh-darned liberal arts education left me with a lot of critiques and new ideas and comparatively little practice in whole-hearted affirmation. But my ambivalence may make this intricate device all the more fitting as a representation of the whole mind-boggling, frustrating, imaginative, jumbled experience of living in Cairo, or just being twenty-two.
Katie is a doctoral student in English and education at the University of Michigan. She loves the New York Times crossword puzzle, advice columns, oceans, and dogs of all kinds.