Monday, July 7, 2014

The iPhone Generation

Kim Stolz, Unfriending My Ex: And Other Things I'll Never Do

Confession time: when I agreed to review this book, I had no idea who Kim Stolz was. Born with the Happy Fetus Trifecta of money, beauty, and Manhattanite connections, she parlayed reality TV popularity into MTV “journalism” and a Citigroup vice presidency before turning thirty. Wowser. Pulling this book from the envelope, I immediately thought: humor memoir. The design mimics books by good-looking comediennes like Chelsea Handler and Mindy Kaling.

To her credit, Stolz has higher aspirations than her CV implies. In her first book, Stolz purposes to scrutinize the Millennial Generation’s relationship with technology, embodied in her own iPhone, a relationship she variously describes as addiction, escape, and adultery. Stolz apparently considers herself typical of her generation, clothed in adulthood’s trappings but suffering protracted adolescence. And she fears her generation has vanished down a digital rabbit hole.

I doubt it. Not the rabbit hole part, which is broadly debatable; but the typical part. Stolz describes herself undertaking a digital fast, forcing her to realize she spends four-and-a-half hours daily on her iPhone. Four-and-a-half hours. Daily. My factory colleagues, many with marriages and children and second jobs despite being markedly younger than Stolz, don’t have such time. Stolz’s entire foundation assumes time resources and money others lack.

Stolz describes an active life encompassing restaurants and parties and girlfriends and casting calls, an arriviste lifestyle inaccessible to the bottom four quintiles of American economics. Then she describes failing to enjoy her lifestyle because she can’t stop checking her text messages and Facebook notifications. Everyone understands the rudeness of dinner companions checking their phones. I, however, cannot understand having that kind of money and time.

And that’s mostly what she offers: anecdotes about herself and her well-heeled friends. I have no difficulty believing that text message affairs are as damaging as real-world assignations, or that worrying about the fun you’re missing elsewhere keeps you from enjoying the fun you’re having here. But somewhere around page 80, Stolz’s writing, by sheer mass, crosses the line from anecdote to bitch session, from analysis to data dump.

Not that Stolz doesn’t back her complaints with evidence. As a seasoned pop journalist (or “journalist”), Stolz musters citations from psychologists, behavioral economists, and science reporters supporting her central claims. Trimming some unnecessary reminiscence, she might have enough content for a longish New Yorker article. She certainly would benefit from putting her factual claims closer together; verifiable facts, in this book, often lie twenty pages apart.

Oh, and what claims she makes. Digital time takes away from time spent having face-to-face conversations. Everybody knows that. Less obviously, heavy digital use has been proven to cause a diminution in measurable attention span, long-term memory, and shared social mores. Text message communication fosters disinhibition, causing banal conflicts to escalate rapidly. Stripped of Stolz’s cutesy-poo anecdotes, her conclusions, backed with solid scientific evidence, are bleak and startling.

I’m forced to conclude that, perhaps, this book isn’t for me. An old writing mentor compared certain forms of contemporary writing to the difference between listening to Beethoven versus Philip Glass. Where lovely, lovely Ludwig Van propels themes forward through linear momentum and elaboration, hearing Glass is more like pattern recognition, a slow accretion of musical motifs. Reading Stolz is like watching a pattern emerge, not a narrative arc mature.

But who, then, does Stolz write for? Not her cohort of semi-rich C-listers, especially if, like her, they’re spending a quarter of their waking hours with their noses buried in their iPhones. If her message aims to alarm fossilized old fogies like me, but her prose pitches to readers raised to avoid the dreaded tl;dr tag, I have difficulty visualizing Stolz’s intended audience. People who recognize her name, perhaps?

Having watched my students squander entire semesters checking their texts under their desks when they thought I couldn’t see, I wanted to like Stolz’s exposé. In those moments where she got out of her own way, I did. She cites good sources, which I’ll probably mine for myself later. But those moments are widely spaced, divided by wide expanses of shapeless, rambling yarn-spinning that go nowhere.

Early in her first chapter, Stolz admits she’s scarcely read a book cover-to-cover since getting her first iPhone in 2006. We can tell. She positions herself as Malcolm Gladwell for the ADHD set; but if MTV and text messaging are her core publicity platforms, I have difficulty imagining who would pay $24 MSRP to read this book. Perhaps she didn’t think that far ahead. Which, perhaps, proves her point.

No comments:

Post a Comment