Satan Stumbles: Confessions from the App-Addict Ward of the Institution of iLife

2010 March 1
by Carl Watson

I don’t know how I got here. I just woke up and I was here, alone, no one around but me. I remember things but they often seem like screen displays—shallow, and communal. My last memory goes something like this: it was a “normal” day, whatever that means. I was riding the downtown F after hours of seeking oblivion in a darkened midtown bar. And I saw them as I normally do, as I always see them, huddled against the facades of buildings, lining the subway stairwells and tunnels and the long chrome cars, mumbling to themselves as if the city were their madhouse. I see them in the apartment buildings, too, and halls of tenements and yuppie condos alike, mindlessly moving in their amniotic light of self-pleasure-driven images and sounds, their blank faces bathed in a sinister, faux-motherly glow, as the dimly “recalled” voice urges them on to better versions of themselves.

It’s time for yoga class dear.
Let me help you get there
Turn right here, don’t get lost.
Would you like to get together with your little friends tonight?
At your favorite cafe?
What would you like for dinner darling?
Should I play some of your favorite music now?
Amy is calling, shall I tell her to call back?
You’re a wonderful person and very valuable to society
I love you honey
You’re such a special little fellow,
You should not have to wait a minute for anything,
Not for even one moment you special little guy.
In fact the world is not only about you–it should be you.

And then I imagine gentle hands of these ethereal screen mommies emanating from the hi-tech devices to caress the cheeks of these wonderful bright and high-achieving children; and at this vision, two films mingled in my fragmented postmodern simulation of a mind: Polanski’s “Repulsion,” and a Star Trek episode: The Next Generation, Season 5, Episode 6. There are a lot of other movies, but I can’t go into them all, as my head seems overfull, a great redundancy of references and warnings. Cronenberg’s “They Came From Within,” comes to mind—parasites that control behavior. Perhaps it is something like that.

Let me begin with the Polanski film, in which Catherine Deneuve plays a woman sliding over the edge into madness. Carol Ledoux, (the Deneuve character) suffers from androphobia (the fear of men). She is thus trapped in a world of psychotic sensual fantasies spilling over from her twisted mind into reality. In one scene the hallway walls of her apartment crack and groping hands protrude to grasp and fondle her nubile young body. These are, of course, the hostile hands of paranoia, and mental illness, not the gentle and loving mommy pod hands that I had envisioned, kind hands that lust only for your mind and not your body so much. I tried to make this clear to my captors, but they only laughed.1

The Star Trek Episode I mentioned had the entire crew of the Enterprise seduced by a game gizmo that attached to your face (not like the face-raping Alien slime mask that makes parasitic babies in your stomach). This game was introduced to Will Riker by his latest alien love interest, one Etana Jol, a Ktarian sex worker with whom he has become involved on the good-time planet of Risa. Apparently the game stimulates the pleasure centers of their brains, just by thinking a cartoon disc into a cartoon pod the player feels an oxycontin shot, or a serotonin blast of “jouissance.” Riker distributes copies of the game to the crew of the starship and everyone becomes addicted. Of course, it turns out the purpose of the game is to render the crew distracted so that the evil Ktarians may take control of the Enterprise and the Empire at their leisure. It was Data, the robot, who saves the crew from this blatantly sexual trick. Robots are said to feel neither desire nor pleasure. They are seduced only by electricity.

It is a prophetic plot line and one may well wonder if our current pod culture is also some scheme of a distant, or not so distant, power. Which is why I maintain that all this pleasure is but the tricks of Capital playing out in our human brains for the service of some larger agency. Flatter the buyer into the ownership of the commodity that pretends to love us and that makes us feel good. Well what’s so bad about feeling good, you ask. I can’t answer. And how can I have such thoughts, the nurses ask. I tell them I am old. I can have any thoughts I want. I can dress in plaid pants. I don’t care. I can even start smoking again.

But in our ward we are not allowed to smoke. I missed my cigarettes. Which is ironic in this context because I once assumed that cell phones were the new cigarettes. I still believe that’s true. Both cells and cigs are capable of showing love for their owners. Both compensate for the gnawing emptiness deep inside by filling it with smoke or mirrors. But we are well beyond cigarettes now. We are beyond all heroin cravings controlled by law and shame. Even McDonalds addictions and the cotton candy pacification of the public have lost ground to health food propaganda, itself a free market phenomenon. We are in the realm of app driven economic necessity, and the sweet empowering and slightly incestuous savor of it. Not to mention the possibility of failure, as many remember.

“You’d better listen to your mother, or failure will be your fate.”

I am speaking of course of that maternal comfort all children craved as they crawled into bed with her, seeking solace from the threatening world to come. I am speaking of a Proustian memory to be sure—longing to kiss Mama on her app-swollen lips.2 In this sense an iPhone becomes like a petite madeleine dipped in a decoction of lime blossom tea, a madeleine without flutes or scallops but equally “contained” in the intricate matrices of electrical bypaths and screen icons, upon whose savor (that being the thermo-detection of your finger) your formally constricted memories, your oppressed and boundaried vision of time begins rapidly to expand, translating the depths of your being into a vast Combray of memories and personalities rising up before you—houses and gardens and towns and surrounding landscapes of past and future possible lives, a great stage set into which you, cyber-child, enter the promised land. It’s a Disneyworld of the mind minus the hours of car travel and family tensions. But it feels so good, you say as you stroke your pod, so good that you forget who you are, and forgetting can be grace in the disguise of oblivion.

Perhaps this is an avenue of investigation for a dissertation, all you grad students out there: The warm glow of the Mother as Device. Who among us, after all, has not wanted to curl up in that cozy place where all needs, all inadequacies are silenced even before they are expressed. Call it a pre-emptive strike against desire launched by those who fear future scarcity. Indeed, studies have shown that the new pods and pads are the most popular masturbatory devices for sale in the great capitalist Paradisio of our time. Beatrice herself could not command such longing from a digitally addled Dante, preoccupied as he would be on those Venetian bridges with some (app)arently more profitable elsewhere. We can only sigh to think of it: dejected, her prepubescent nobility debased and put on sale in porn and pleasure stores for the satisfaction of lesser poets. How would our concept of romantic love have evolved?

But I digress. Appu himself, at the convenience store of public opinion, assures us it is no longer a source of shame to crave the fetish object, much less to purchase it boldly, as he hands us our plastic-wrapped virtual magazine in pod form. After all, the origin of the fetish, according to some, is said to be the realization of the fact that your mother does not have a penis. In light of this fact, you hold the hard little technology in your hand, and, after a few strokes your brain liquefies, and the turbulent flow that was once you merges with the Stream of Being. Downriver we see vortices form in the effort to consolidate all needs, all desires into one Einsteinian app for everything. This is the dream then; this is the theoretical quest—the consolidation of desire devices: the collapsing of your mePhone into your meBerry into your mePad into your selfBook into your iZombie into your myTV into your iDesktop into your EgoPhone only to be collapsed back into your iWristwatch then onto your myScreen in your cute new myCar as you drive off to some indeterminate iLand—a brand new country all about you, where you can live in a special MyHouse in ourTown where every public space is a MySpace and myFace would be everywhere, on every page and every book would be about you.

My God, one can hardly withstand the easy mobility, the vortex of self-glory, the Excess of Being, (as in being-in-itself), until you just want to spray yourself everywhere, let the world be your webpage. Indeed, I was watching a download the other night, just because I wanted to and it was myRight, a download of an old movie called “Invasion of the Body Snatchers,” and it was funny because it was about pods taking everybody’s friends away, bfs turning into blank bots, going through the friend-motions without the (e)motions. This turned out to be true too, as all my friends had actually turned into these pod people; I could no longer have a conversation with anyone, they were always distracted, staring at screens designed with all their favorite interests in mind. And (app)parently these interests were not me. And I knew the same thing that was happening in the body-snatchers movie was happening in the real world when I saw a sinister looking Apple delivery truck rolling down 9th Avenue, the driver oblivious to the carnival of humanity around him, intent only on delivering his cargo of pods to a downtown store.

I sought solace in my reflection in a cell phone store window, where I had me a vision. It was down at the bottom of the brain stem that I saw him—standing in his black turtleneck, the king of hell and mother’s little helper, savior of all high-achieving children. It was Good Time Mr. Jobs, Mr. Steve Dandy, our great mega-mommy/super-daddy centered in his/her cyber spider’s web, holding a thin metal mirror pod in the palm of his hand, or rather my hand, because suddenly I felt a deep prodding need emanating there-from. I need him. After all, who wouldn’t want a Mr. Jobs in their living room? Who wouldn’t want to have Mr. Jobs in their pocket, vibrating with important breaking news, new deals, and vital messages from good pals you can’t live without. The Job Man is making things right in a world going wrong, a world multi-tasking its mindless way to fabulousness and profit at the expense of the human soul. The animated billboards and zippers of midtown were filled with the news of the great new device. But all was not right. Indeed, I heard the sirens even before I expressed my fear.

I turned to the crowds on 9th Avenue—”Satan has made a mistake!” I cried. For I felt he had failed in his latest attempt to turn us into blobs of pod fondling jelly. Desperate for a new product to woo the slavering public, desperate for funds, and secretly afraid Amazon had beat him to the economic punch, the Job man rushed his latest pod into production to universal underwhelming reaction of his waiting devotees.3 It occurred to me then that we had all been duped. “Doesn’t anybody get it?” I asked in a panic. By now the cops were coming and I didn’t have much time. “The bitten apple. The black turtle neck. The Book of Job. My God is all symbolism for nought?” I held some stranger by the lapels, but his face looked like a house. In fact, I felt a little like Anthony Perkins in Psycho, gazing up at the haunted house where his dead mama lives, then running to comfort her, or at least to ask absolution, but when he finally arrives at the empty rocking chair from whence emanated so much past pleasure, there is nothing on the cushion but a tiny hard glowing phone. The illumined dial flashed an app that activated itself, the app of the Justin face. Not sure if it was Justin Long, or Justin Timberlake, I get them confused (apologies to Justins and Jens of Billtown).

In any case it was that Just-in-Time face that mouthed these modulated words. “Resistance is futile,” he said with hipster affectation. And like Theresa of Avila, I felt the lance of light pierce my aching loins as I screamed in glee. I had been in pain and I felt no more pain. I had been in misery and I felt relieved. I had been hungry and my hunger was sated. All things became possible or at least probable. I was feeling so communal I wanted to share my creative seed, indeed to give of myself, and I did copiously. As it was precisely then I started bleeding from the virtual wounds I was acquiring in the virtual game I had been unwittingly playing called iPassion. My wounds flowed with high resolution IMAX blood. I was afraid my clothes would be stained and with no app by which to lave them. But wouldn’t you know the iPad had soaked it up. It soaked up my pain and led me to a special place, a land of joy and endless products where the ravaged cities of New Orleans and Port-o-Prince were mere destinations on a sympathy game board and the beards of terrorists became beards of butterflys and where compassion chat groups flowered in wonderland meadows patrolled by Johnny Depp and Ann Hathaway.

Just as I was enjoying the pleasure of my bleeding, I heard a scream and the “thunk” sound of “real” human flesh struck by steel and rolled in mud and concrete. Someone was crossing the street beside me, distracted by his iPhone, whom a texting truck driver didn’t see till it was to late. “Too bad for him,” I heard all the iPeople laugh as they passed on their way to all the great new restaurants with their best buds in tow and visions of memorable moments in their heads. An ambulance came and went with all the drama of a major league replay or an X-Box episode of viral life. But there was more: down in a gutter of 9th Avenue, I watched as swarms of unthinking ants devoured the corpse of a dead pigeon. I believe I could see and hear the creaking of their mandibles in the pigeony meat. And then I knew we were mistaken—that really there was no such thing as consciousness in the world, only an ongoing attraction to light and the smell of sustenance and genitals. All was mere action and reaction. Appu was right. We didn’t need to feel guilt. We haven’t done anything wrong. Wrong is not possible any longer, only fun. I was relieved, at least I thought I was, and I told my overseers so, but they did not believe as I did. Because, then the nurse came with my medication and my story ended abruptly, as if a power button somewhere had turned me off.

[1] It may seem here that I am comparing your average pod-fondler with a madwoman, but there is connection: the hallway hands and the mommy pod hands are both rooted in a Freudian subtextual circuitry out of which the latter may be effectively marketed as an anti-Polanski hallway of bliss, or river of good feeling flowing in fallopian expectation through a forest of signs. The final conception being, of course: You! Your fulfillment, as opposed to your distress.

[2] As one app-head punster put it,” It’s app-Parent that apps have become our parents.” But then what would you rather have: mother getting you off gently and on to your next life adventure, or the hairy rapist father stand-in next door ruining your future? It’s Roman vs Marcel in a WWF smackdown.

[3] One might picture here, a similar scenario to the one above, a great cosmic battle: Apple vs. Amazon—two great mothers, Eve and the Warrior Queen, going at it for dominance of the American economy.

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