Months ago, I am stuck in San Luis Obispo. The plane needs this one part, says the attendant. We had to order it. Might be here Thursday?
It is Sunday.
The airport is small, and a sudden swarm of indignation thickens the air. We have homes, we argue. Lives! Babies who need our care, aging parents or deadlines, a sister’s pregnancy, a dentist appointment. The airport’s solution is firm: the plane will be grounded until Thursday, but perhaps there’s a connection we can catch? Something in L.A., or SFO?
Passengers confirm rental cars, share rides, get out of dodge. New itineraries are set, family members notified. I’m re-routed to Dallas on a different plane the next afternoon, a final ETA just two-and-a-half days later.
Do you have anything sooner? I ask with little hope.
You can grab an Uber to LAX, maybe take the train? But we can’t reimburse you, the attendant tells me. It’s a mechanical thing, you know? Maybe try Uber?
I tell the attendant I don’t have the Uber app. He is just shy of 19 years old, he will later tell me. Having been raised and steeped in screened conveniences, he can’t possibly imagine the thought. I have said something outlandish, recklessly revealing, something akin to oh, I don’t know, I’m anti-toothbrush.
Everyone has Uber, he says.
I don’t, I counter.
He is completely gobsmacked, eyes smiling, laughing now, howling behind the counter at the sheer insanity of the idea. He calls his buddies, motions over to the ground crew.
But how do you get anywhere? says his friend.
In our postmodern society, we are quick to point out the many ways technology connects us to the larger world around us. We read newsletters from Ghana. We Zoom with grandparents. We watch live feeds of the moon, take neighborhood walks to Les Baladeurs, tour the Rijksmuseum. Technology makes our world better, we say. Brighter! Expansive! Bigger!
And it does.
But sometimes, it doesn’t.
Last month, the sun at high noon, I take my children to an air-conditioned exhibit downtown to witness the works of Van Gogh. Panels of fabric strung ceiling-high, each comprised of over 4 trillion content pixels, Vincent’s visionary pieces are projected into an immersive gallery of wonder. For hours, we walk in, around, and through the Dutch countryside, swim in the Starry Night, lay in beds of a hundred sunflowers.
Here we sit, cross-legged on a cold coliseum floor, entranced and captivated, not yet aware we are holding our breath. My daughter pulls out her notebook to furiously capture Van Gogh’s quotes, thoughts, ideas from his life – or at least the one that is projected before us. My son holds out his hand to catch a flitting bird, a falling petal. We gaze upon painting after painting, full of life and beauty and madness. We are awed, and technology has made it all possible.
As we round the corner to the exit, I realize we are not alone. There is a mother filming an Instagram video of her toddler spinning in wildflowers, a gaggle of preteens texting as they wait for their parents to leave. An influencer completing a quick outfit change amidst the brushstrokes of The Potato Eaters.
Technology broadens our experiences. But what will broaden our capacity to actually be in those experiences? To witness them? To see them, to live them, to attest to their reality? How can we begin to reject the idea that we must capture a moment so that maybe, possibly, wonderfully we might allow a moment to capture us?
In an increasingly digital age, the world we’ve created is bigger than ever.
But at times, it’s so big that we can’t see what’s right in front of us.
After two extra days in San Luis Obispo, I finally deplane in the Midwest. It is late, dark, cold. I am unshowered and worse for the wear, and I am wondering what the state of my fridge is back home. Is a quick grocery run in order? Can I make do until the morning? Scrounge up some toast, maybe Yorkshire?
As I join the passengers in a single-file line to wait for for our gate-checked bags, I spot a man in a wheelchair. He’s parked directly in front of the terminal’s open door, the snow swirling just outside.
Are you cold? I ask. Can I move you up here where it’s warmer?
He nods, thanks me, starts rattling off how much he hates ‘bein in this darned thing when ain’t nobody paying any attention to nobody else no more.
I look around, and I see what we all see when we line up in airports and weave through grocery stores and wait for fancy chais. A sea of heads, looking down, lost in a world of our making, one that is as manufactured as it is manipulated by unseen forces beyond our knowledge – but moreso, our control.
You’re right, I tell him, and for a moment, that’s enough. Two people with flip phones in their pockets, witnessing a world that has spiraled us all into an orbit we recognize but don’t want to.
Soon, his wife joins us. Stay here, Stanley, she says. I gotta see if I can get us an Uber.
In what ways have you witnessed a changed society in light of the ubiquitous nature of technology? What areas of tech feel the hardest for your family to set boundaries around? Any creative solutions you’re testing out in your homes? I’d love to hear!