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
Co-founder of Pinterest
“I dislike voice communication. Receiving a phone call feels so alien—it’s disarmingly synchronous!”
Park Slope Food Co-op
“I was way too Twitter-obsessed. It started to feel like it was a job to me, where it was like I can no longer watch the Oscars, I have to live-tweet it. And it’s like when someone loses a limb they say that there’s an itch of the stump. Like, my thumbs still cramp up.”
Stuyvesant High School
“[Instead of streaming] I like the old-fashioned way where I just download music on my phone.”
The Upper East Side
“I asked my 6-year-old daughter the other day, ‘How much do you love me?’ She said, ‘So much, even more than Google.’ I was like, ‘Where did you learn that?’”
“When the internet got invented, people were saying, ‘But nobody’s reading books anymore.’But it’s still progress. Information is the leveler, in the sense that it can decimate your prejudices.”
Rockaway Beach Bus
“Remember the cat app where you just put cats on people?”
“Somebody had to file an LLC for that fucking cat app.”
Total NYC Poll
Based on responses of 130 residents.
“I don’t have Uber, because I have a driver. So that’s an app, right? A driver is a better app than Uber.”
Brooklyn Nets Player
“There’s a dominoes app, and I play it with a lot of my teammates in the NBA. I check three times a day just to see who’s playing.”
“When I can’t get service on it I look at my phone the way a smoker must look at his cigarettes at an airport.”
Nymag: Do you use your phone in the bathroom?
“Yes.” –Tina Brown, Editor
“The bathroom is the only time to read Politico! Doesn’t everybody know this?” –Nico Muhly, Composer
“I will cop to reading the Kindle or tablet while in the bathroom, or checking Twitter in the same situation. Weirdly, those two uses seem to be specific, in that context, to those two devices.” –John Rogers, Screenwriter
“‘Make It Rain’ is kind of like the iPhone software’s commentary on the utility of capitalism. The entire game is swiping at bills. It’s highly addictive. At a certain point, I was doing it on the subway and realized someone was gonna recognize me. I look like an idiot.”
Would you rather read something on your phone/tablet or your computer?
Crazy internet flame wars have to be read on the laptop. Books on the iPad, and the Times on the phone.
Do you take self-imposed tech breaks?
Yes, it’s called “Going to England.” No shit works there, there’s never any 3G, and the whole place is designed to make you drink so much that you no longer have control over your fine motor skills anyway.
How often do you check your phone?
Every eight seconds. The alerts are all silent vibrations of different patterns. When anybody I like texts me, it vibrates in the precise rhythm that the first tambourine plays in Steve Reich’s Tehillim.
How do you use Twitter?
I follow 1,168 people, many of whom are muted. The ones I like the best are clergymen and -women, musicians (particularly opera people who seem to be constantly posting under duress), activists (who fight one another), and some crazy French grad students.
“BarkBuddy is my favorite app. It’s Tinder but for adoptable dogs, so you swipe left or right. I have a bunch of favorites, but someone has to accept me first.”
Who has a great Instagram account?
Oprah! Her Instagram game is untouchable. And Kim K. I also love weird/artsy/fashiony accounts like Yagazieemezi, Hanksynyc, and Thistle & Clover.
“I got so much shit the other day for following big-booty girls on Instagram, but I’m telling y’all right now, those are fitness people. I follow fitness girls…Okay, maybe a couple big-booty girls [as pics of women scroll by in his feed].”
Who do you follow on Twitter?
I don’t know. I follow some people, but I never read my Twitter. My fans know that and they’ve accepted that in me. Occasionally, but there’s so much stupid shit that actually I don’t know a lot of people who can bear through it anymore. So I like to tweet out and feel like that connects me with people. And I think they know that it is always all me doing it. Nobody is pretending to be me on Twitter. If I say something, that’s my joke. That’s me saying it. I don’t need apps. I have assistants. I’m sure apps are great. Being rich is better. Say I laughed evilly after that. Make sure you say I laughed evilly.
So do you check your phone a lot then?
No. And nobody else should either. It’s fucking obnoxious. And it’s preventing you from living life. It’s a disease that must be arrested. Live in the moment. I mean, Jesus Christ, everybody always has to have a picture of every fucking thing. Hitler didn’t have this many pictures of himself taken.