So, how did I get from here to there? How did I get from buying a refurbished so called smart phone to kneeling on the living room floor a few weeks later, pounding and destroying it mercilessly with a hammer? Had I gone absolutely barking mad? My heart was pounding in my chest and the debris was whizzing around me.
My daughter was crying in the bedroom. She was upset, as the device had over the recent past literally transferred into her possession, through my negligence.
I have never been a supporter of technology. It was only when I was inside an MRI scanner a few days ago to have my head examined that I was suddenly in awe of it. That machine would not look out of place on the International Space Station. Not that any of the astronauts are ever likely to fall that ill or get that injured that they’d require such strong electromagnetic fields to slice through their innards. They can probably just open a hatch and let all that unfiltered space radiation in instead. Voila. While my head was trapped in some kind of cage and I lay immobile, listening to the strange knocking and pulsing sounds on all sorts of frequencies, I pictured that I was inside my band’s rehearsal room. Every high frequency tone was either a randomly struck key, or one of Tim’s wonky guitar notes run through all kinds of effects. By the end of the scan, I had almost written a new song proffered freely by the rhythm the high-tech apparatus had generated. All I remember from that song now are the first lyrics Circus of life … and that’s as far as I recall. Perhaps it is just as well that I’ve had this scan.
I walked outside into a sunny Bracknell Friday afternoon. Kids just sauntered home from school in their uniforms, some of them engulfed in chirpy conversation, a lot of real young ones staring at phones. At that age already? How lazy does parenting get?
I had already swapped my refurbished phone for an old fashioned brick phone. I was out of reach on those fuzzy communications apps, which felt liberating. At the same time, I had no media player to my avail, so I listened to FM radio for the first time in years. It was a revelation! A revelation in how much shit filters down from the airwaves, trying to poop inside my brain. Glossy pop and vicious rap, interspersed by lame advertising and awful news. I hopped through the channels and I never thought that classical music would present itself as the only listenable alternative that didn’t make me lose more braincells than a seizure. But I was mesmerised by not having a choice, by the peace and quiet that comes from having to stick with one acceptable channel. There was great chitchat too, and for once I was brought up to speed with what was going on in my local area. These are largely news I neglect if I have the choice to, because I do not think that the rescuing of pet is particularly newsworthy, whilst the worst famine in the world is raging in Yemen. England has always seemed dull to me, parochial, neither informed by physical connection to Europe, nor by the worldliness of its people, or lack thereof. So I was surprised to find local stories downright bingeworthy, and I had the absence of a fancier phone to thank for it.
“Put it away,” my sweet, angelic daughter Izzy said, when I waited at her school gate, phone in hand. She was deeply worried for her social standing should her friends discover the embarrassing aged tech her dad was showcasing in broad daylight.
“Alright,” I said, “it’s not so bad, it’s so uncool that it’s almost cool, don’t you think?”
Of course not. What a backwards idiot I was.
There was no camera, so while cycling along the – still sunshine doused – canal the next morning, I never felt the distractive urge to stop and take a picture of swans and swaying trees, let alone degrade myself to snapping a selfie of my awkward grin. It dawned on me that all that resource-exploiting communication technology bathing our world in the ghosts of invisible radiation, is centred around a great nothingness. It is truly a marvellous industry, one that isn’t needed at all, bringing ills and addiction and almost nothing noteworthy or of worth altogether.
It’s incredible how we’ve been spooked, if you ask me.
However, once I was back at home and my sweet and sour borderline teenage girl had returned from school, I preferred to lie on the bed nursing a migraine and worrying about my MRI results rather than actively parenting the budding fully-fledged human in the room next to me, who was deeply engaged in video chat with mates like a pro. Wasn’t it my job as a parent to present an alternative, something as attractive as a phone, but something real, something perhaps less funky, non-blinking, something around hobbies and friends and a ball and a park? When would I finally exit the realm of my self-pity, discard of that morbid cocoon, and emerge a fully-engaged, active, useful father?
No wonder then, that with such thoughts clogging my neural pathways, I balked at the task’s sheer magnitude.
Wasn’t it fair that Izzy was on the phone a whole lot now in order to catch up with friends of whom she’d seen dearly little during the pandemic’s capricious restrictions? But wouldn’t it be nice if we just sat and painted and listened to jazz again, like we used to on Sunday mornings?
And a mobile phone is truly a Hydra, a gateway drug into a never-ending labyrinth of spell-binding technology. So what if there is no phone in the house anymore? The addict will sniff out the next available piece of equipment available. My HP laptop. That yields YouTube and TikTok mashups, enough to keep the e-novice using. Desperation and sadness build in me. I have been there. I know what it’s like. I was a user too of home entertainment, at her age. I didn’t dream of an iPhone, it was an Amiga500 for me. And once I had my paws on the Commodore64 console I hardly ever got off it, until late in the night, or until I lost sense whether it was day and night, school day or weekend. Meeting friends shifted from riding bikes in the forest and hinterland, to exchanging discs of coveted software. Mountains of social time lost to worshipping the idol of blips and blobs. In my teenage years I emerged from the dark ages of early-year monochrome graphics with the misleadingly powerful name of Hercules to the personal computer age that could rival the immersive joy of arcade games.
But another step awaited of sinking back into the quagmire of a different kind of dark age. The age of pornography, a slippery, fun slope to ride down initially, catapulted by harmless games like Strip Poker or steering perpetually horny Larry Laffer through his adventure series with simple verbal commands and accompanying hefty, groin reaction. As with all addiction, the trajectory is not initially noticeable, yet it is always present. In the case of online pornography it goes hand in hand with the development of technology. I recall a gathering at my mate Lars’ place, in my early teenage years.
“What’s he got, why is everyone swarming there?” I asked my mate Marc.
“He’s got Mandy!”
“What’s that? That Manilow tune? Or does he actually have a girl?”
Neither of my guesses was correct. Lars had a few things. A set of rectangular, geeky glasses, a white dressing gown that made him look sloppy and sleazy. His parents ran a reputable massage parlour which somehow added to their brat’s sleaze factor.
“Come on in,” he said conspiringly, “did you bring the dosh?”
Marc got out a tenner. It turned out that it covered two floppy copies of Mandy, our first experience in hardcore porn. It was a short clip of a pixelated hairy dude shafting a hairy muff babe. A bit of the old in-and-out, a minute or so long. Jesus, we sat there agog, faces aflush, cheeks burning like hellfire. We’d never seen anything like it.
This Mandy was worth a tenner. Now I owed Marc a fiver, which was only fair. I shoved the 5 and 1/4-inch disc into my school bag. I felt as if I was harbouring state secrets, or a dangerous refugee, in my knapsack.
The trajectory of technological advancement, and the subsequent enablement and availability of filth in my bedroom, was, as hinted, a closely related curve. Did I just get weirder and more addicted as I got older? Did I resort to porn easily when a relationship hit rock bottom, as an easy way out, so much easier than communication and confrontation? When had this points failure happened, and derailment of my sexuality occurred? Well I cannot pinpoint it exactly, but it happened somewhere in between Larry Laffer and sex chatrooms, leaving decades wide open as culprits.
In the former, I found a happy, easily accessible drug to soothe the lesser social wounds and rendering living in an unhappy parental home bearable; in the latter I found, eventually, the death of my marriage, and dystopian, dysfunctional patterns of behaviour when confronted with anything challenging, from barking managers to a crying child and a splicing headache. The point is, that technology will always evolve. And the faster it involves, the more action is required to safeguard our children from going down a path of senseless indulgence and distraction that in the worst case leads to addiction akin to substance abuse.
I think of all the years I’ve lost to floating in these seductive digital spaces, that went from static images, to frantically moving romps. What did that make of me? Where is the language that I would have been able to speak, had I not wasted so much time? Which one would it be? Arabic? Chinese? How much happier would Izzy’s life be, had porn not been instrumental in breaking up her parents’ hapless wedlock. If only she knew what a shithead her daddy really was!
One thing was for certain. I didn’t want her trudging down that same path into digital quicksand. The temptations are so much greater now, and the general resilience amongst humans even weaker. What chance did I as a parent have against a whole industry based on absolutely nothing, yet almost all-powerful?
“Please, Izzy, turn that off now, it’s nine o’clock. Come on, let’s have a break. Let’s play some football.”
We go into the garden and play football. After ten minutes, it gets darker. Bats are appearing and dropping overhead, almost touching our hair. I love those furry winged friends, who only make an appearance within a half-hour window at dusk.
Quickly, the lure of the video call is too great. She goes back inside. The football is deflated…deflated of hope of restoring healthier, outdoor play habits. The hours pass. It’s ten o’clock, eleven o’clock. I rot away in front of the telly, watching a UFO documentary. My meek calls into the bedroom, negotiating an end to today’s phone time, are rejected.
“Don’t your friends ever get tired?” I shout.
She closes the door.
Her school mates all congregate on their devices. There is talk of boyfriends. Talk of meeting up in the park, thankfully. But as the clock approaches midnight my short tempered fuse has all but burnt down.
“Surrender the phone now!” I demand, to no avail.
My head is splitting, maybe even splitting up right down the fontanelle. I am scared of what the MRI might find. Years of negative thoughts crunching my brain cells down to mash, all those years of porn turning whatever is left of my think organ into a sorry liquid soup, which is now washing, coloured in fiery red, all over me. I am raging, and I cannot be stopped. I can’t let her slide down that path, no matter how incompetent my reactions as a father.
I grab the damn thing, run into the kitchen, grab a hammer, retreat to the living room, kneel, and destroy the lithium powered idol with a few hefty, irate fell swoops. That’s it. It’s gone. The nothingness has died. The colours, the flickering ocean of distractions, goes silent one last time. So silent, that Izzy’s tears are the only noise flooding the apartment at midnight.
I am shocked that I was capable of such madness. But these are mad times. This was the hammering act of a desperate man, who does not want to lose his child, nor his sanity.
“Come here, my sweet angel,” I say, and I put her down to bed and stroke her hair and her neck, until she goes to sleep peacefully.
I sit by her bed for a long time, deeply worried and watchful.
Cover image courtesy of KylaBorg via Flickr