Day 632: When my mother-in-law screamed my daughter’s name three times, I ran from a Zoom meeting in the dining room and quickly realized that my 12-month-old might be dying. Her breath was faint, her body was limp, and her eyes were rolled into the back of her head. “Call 911!” It was the loudest I’d yelled in the six months since we’d been living at my in-laws’ house. Holding her by the armpits, my mind detonated in a dozen directions: Keep her alive. Also, Does she have Covid? Also, an image from season six of The Sopranos, one of the 4 billion shows we’d binged since March 2020: Does she look like Christopher Moltisanti did after his Escalade rolled down the hill? And then, Shit, am I still in a meeting? Are my camera and microphone still on?
When my daughter most needed me to be her father, I was everywhere and nowhere, everyone and no one.
Two years into this pandemic, we are in the throes of what my scrambled brain can only think to call The Great Smushing. This non-peer-reviewed term refers to the crashing and flattening of our personalities, responsibilities, and selves, driven by frictionless Everything Devices and greatly accelerated by Covid. Our identities and roles as parents, children, friends, colleagues, lovers, caretakers, and on and on have been collapsed into a single addled being. Many of us have remained hunched and fidgeting in the same room, Slacking, Zooming, emailing, betting, dating, trolling, therapizing, grieving, giggling, sobbing, shrieking at strangers, and identifying with an immovable 200,000-ton container ship, all on the same small screens day in and day out, with fewer places in the outside world open for us to safely stretch, find, challenge, or lose ourselves, or to be any one self at one time. In my experience, the symptoms of this smushing include discombobulation, disorganization, despair, and inertia. All work and all play on the screen all day makes Jack a dull boy.
Blessedly, the 911 operator seemed not to be experiencing any of these side effects, and acted with authority. She suggested I turn my baby upside down. As soon as I did, her eyes returned to meet my horrified gaze, and she started to cry. A minute later, my wife and I were off in an ambulance to find out what just happened, and if it could happen again. As my dazed child lay strapped to the stretcher, my mind kept cycling through the same scattered, shameful, smushed thoughts: Will she be OK? How did I fail her so completely? Is there Wi-Fi in the ER?
“You have one identity,” a 25-year-old Mark Zuckerberg famously told journalist David Kirkpatrick in 2009. “The days of you having a different image for your work friends or coworkers and for the other people you know are probably coming to an end pretty quickly.” And then his moralizing kicker: “Having two identities for yourself is an example of a lack of integrity.” Strap on your Oculus blinders and ignore the fact that there may have been times that Facebook (now Meta) has displayed multiple identities or a lack of integrity. Zuckerberg’s prophecy has been thoroughly fulfilled.
Smushing started long before 2009—it probably began with the advent of personal computing and being able to open multiple windows at the same time—but throughout the 2010s, our lives got mega-crunched. The share of Americans who owned a smartphone rose from some 35 percent to 85 percent over the decade. The proportion of our lives that we compressed into our smartphones jumped at about the same rate. The average American adult now spends more than nine hours a day planted in front of a screen, more than half of our waking lives smushed into an Apple, Google, or Microsoft device.