Near my house is a restaurant where Jack and I go to have a beer and say nasty things about other people. When we went there recently Jack was in a bad mood because he was broke. He insulted pigeons on the sidewalk and muttered to himself as we made our way to a table.
“Fucking halfwit,” he grumbled, nodding at the table next to ours.
A halfwit and his friends sat at the next table. They were in their twenties. Halfwit wore a vest and checked his deltoids in a mirror behind them. His name was Jeff. The woman next to him had a ring in her eyebrow and the other woman had extremely pouty lips.
“If they weren’t so normal,” Jack snorted, “they’d be fucking stupid.”
We assumed that they were friends but we couldn’t be sure because they were too busy with their phones. They could’ve been sitting at the same table by accident, connected to the wifi and not to one another. They swiped and liked and worried their phones like a dog worries a bone.
“Stop staring like that,” I told Jack.
“Why?” he asked. “They’re not even here.”
He was right. They weren’t in contact with anything in the restaurant, but rather with friends who were elsewhere. Being elsewhere is the logical extension of previous revolutions in communication — talking, writing, the telephone and television. Jeff and friends didn’t have to deal with the awkwardness of being somewhere when they could star in their lives elsewhere.
We watched as they did this. Jeff handled a list of things on his screen so rapidly that we couldn’t imagine how he did it and saw what he was doing.
“Maybe it’s all the practice he gets playing video games,” Jack suggested.
Jeff paused suddenly, enlarged a photo of someone taken at arm’s length and showed it to Eyebrow. She faked biting his burger and Jeff snapped a picture of them in reply.
“Just imagine,” Jack mused, “a future in which we’re all engaged like that, vital information flashing between us. Wouldn’t it be lovely?”
“No need to imagine that,” I said. “We’re just living in the past.”
“Yeah,” he groaned, “I know.”
He stared at Jeff and friends again. They were eating while they worked their phones. Jeff chewed noisily and Eyebrow pawed her salad like a cat would.
“I’ve had enough of this,” Jack announced and got up.
“What are you doing?” I asked.
He cleared his throat.
“Would you mind taking our picture?”
Jeff and Eyebrow looked up from their phones.
“Would you take our picture?”
“Sure,” Jeff said, holding out his hand.
Jack stepped forward and shook it.
“Er,” Jeff half-smiled, “your phone?”
“What for?” Jack frowned.
Lips looked up from her phone.
“You wanted me to take a picture?” Jeff said slowly.
“I do,” Jack smiled. “I do. But with your phone, not mine.”
Jeff looked at Eyebrow and then at Jack.
“Well,” Jack explained, “if we used my phone I’d end up with a picture of myself, and that would just be stupid, wouldn’t it?”
Jack might as well have asked Jeff to hold his slimy dentures.
“Besides,” he added helpfully, “you took a picture of a hamburger earlier. If you can do that, why not a picture of your neighbours? Who knows, we might become friends.”
“I don’t think so,” Jeff said after a few moments.
“Uts ong ith you?” Lips asked, looking intense.
Whatever she’d done to her lips had somehow inflated them to three atmospheres and she couldn’t close her mouth properly.
“Nothing’s ong,” Jack replied, sitting down and turning his back to them. “Nothing at all.”
To denounce the young is a timeless tradition. It’s what young people do when they’re no longer young.
“You know,” Jack remarked after a while, “I get it. These assholes are just the latest wave. Thousands of years ago the elders grunted in disgust at the invention of talking. The same thing happened when books displaced storytelling, when film and television reduced stage actors to street performers.”
He leaned back and turned to the other table.
“Leave them alone,” I begged. “You were saying?”
Jack looked disappointed, but continued.
“All these advances in communication meant that we didn’t have to settle for local guys once we had access to the best guys in the world.”
He drained his glass and made a face at our waiter for another beer.
“Now that the internet has wired us up,” I said. “the local guy is the global guy.”
“Exactly,” Jack said. “Now all these halfwits get published and star in something. We’ve handed a megaphone to a baby.”
The waiter arrived with the beer.
“You know,” Jack remarked when he was gone, “we drink this beer because it’s so easy to get, not because it’s great.”
He stared at the beer and frowned.
“Pretty soon it makes good beer hard to come by,” he continued. “These idiots swipe because it’s as easy as grunting was before we learned to talk. It isn’t great, but the internet is a house of mirrors and so it appears to be great.”
He leant back to say something to them, but decided against it.
“Soon,” he resumed, “real conversations will be hard to come by. This is much easier. Because it’s so easy, everyone can do it. Because everyone can do it, numbers matter. Because numbers matter, things trend.”
“It’s very democratic,” I said.
“It’s great,” he added after a moment. “But is it good?”
Jeff didn’t care. He wanted speed and feedback or he’d get bored. If he couldn’t see himself reflected in a count of likes and followers, the mirror would be gone and he’d leave the restaurant. We watched him now as he picked his teeth and snapped a selfie of the group. He typed a bonsai caption and sent it off. Whatever it said couldn’t have been much, but it didn’t have to be. Like the selfie, it was only a reflection.