Skip to content, or skip to search.

Skip to content, or skip to search.

The Pocket Universe

As Chief Justice Roberts recently wrote, cell phones are “such a pervasive and insistent part of daily life that the proverbial visitor from Mars might conclude they were an important feature of human anatomy.” But what do people really use their phones for? We asked a bunch of New Yorkers around town.


There’s a short story by Borges in which he describes a mystical object called the Aleph, a single point through which it’s possible to view the entire universe from every angle simultaneously. Upon seeing the Aleph, Borges’s protagonist weeps, overcome by his glimpse of everything that’s ever existed. “The unimaginable universe,” he calls it.

Today, we all have Alephs. They’re called iPhones. Or Samsungs. Or Moto X’s. These devices connect us to one another, to the world around us, and to infinite troves of collected knowledge and idiocy. They give us a bounty of abilities that is, frankly, ridiculous: on-demand shelter and transport, instant news from anywhere, and several dozen ways to get lunch delivered. Even so old-school a personage as Chief Justice John Roberts, in a Supreme Court decision last week, reinforced the principle that the phone is an extension of the person. Where does one end and the other begin?

In exchange for these new superpowers, all our devices demand is attention. And we fork it over gladly. We unlock our phones 110 times per day, according to one study. Another study found that 94 percent of people were too distracted by their phones to notice a tree filled with dollar bills—a literal money tree!—on the sidewalk next to them.

Our pocket-size portals aren’t prefab, though. We shape them. The icons on our home screens are a reflection of who we are, where we go, what’s important to us. On one level, they’re tribal objects, linking groups together through shared choices. Some people send enough emoji-laden texts per day to fill a War and Peace–size novel. Others bliss on Candy Crush and 2048. Here, in an attempt to catalogue these choices, is a look at how lots of ordinary New Yorkers—and some famous people—have chosen to arrange their digital universes. Reporters polled New Yorkers at seven totemic hubs (from Lincoln Center to the hipster bus connecting Williamsburg to Rockaway Beach), looking for the differences that define tech culture. And found them. If you want to know who someone is, look at his phone.
Additional Reporting by Jeremy Bergman, Meagan Flynn, Adrienne Gaffney, Kylie Gilbert, Allegra Hobbs, Alex Jung, Meg Miller, Trupti Rami, Vanita Salisbury, Lauren Schwarzberg, Renata Sellitti, Katie Van Syckle, Jennifer Vineyard, Katherine Ward.

The Laptop-and-Latte Set
Ace Hotel

Illustration by Kimou Meyer  

Evan Sharp
Co-founder of Pinterest
“I dislike voice communication. Receiving a phone call feels so alien—it’s disarmingly synchronous!”

Also: Seamless, Uber, Twitter, Pocket, Skype, Evernote, Wunderlist, Dropbox, Duolingo, Spotify, Exit Strategy, LinkedIn, Day One, WhatsApp, FlightTrack, Kayak, Quora, Flipboard, KakaoTalk, Sleep Cycle, Songza radio, USA Today Crosswords.  


Current Issue
Subscribe to New York

Give a Gift