Already Late

Staying reachable and updated by the feed is not a prerequisite for being “in touch”

Since before the ring of the first factory bell, what we do between opening our eyes and getting to work has congealed into this measure, “the morning,” meant to prepare the worker for her day through a regimen of well-crafted habits. Psychologist William James put it bluntly, “Habit [is] the enormous fly-wheel of society, its most precious conservative agent. It alone is what keeps us all within the bounds of ordinance…” He finished that sentence by precisely naming how the ordinance is kept; habit “saves the children of fortune from the envious uprisings of the poor.” In other words, the discipline of habit spells mastery, and the lure of routine’s obedience keeps certain people in their place.

The reason for our scrupulous study of morning routines is perhaps summed up in Annie Dillard’s shared, no-fuss conviction that “how we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives,” and how we spend our mornings can dictate how we spend our days. The morning steers us, and the morning routine offers the path. The alchemical fascination with morning ritual heavily favors creatives and tech giants. No one, to my knowledge, has written a click-baity article detailing the morning routine of a single mother of three, though I suspect these morning routines are as, if not more, closely calibrated for survival than Tim Cook’s or Beethoven’s. Still, the desire to scour through morning routines is an aspirational itch. Productivity — and creativity — are rarely accidental. The muse may be fickle, but regimine’s fruits, we are told, are reliable. We study and incorporate the routines of others because their formulas might solve our miscalculations, might save our days — and maybe our lives.

Introducing the smartphone required a degree of deliberation because it had the capacity of catapulting or derailing a day

When I lived in New York, I spent several Saturday mornings visiting the beds of friends and strangers to ask them about their first waking moments for Adult, the magazine. I called the series of interviews “Mornings After,” because I wanted to frame the morning not as a beginning, but as an aftermath. Not as a stage for production, but as an arrival to the shore of a previous day’s wreck. As waking from something, not toward a potential formula for economic success.

Inevitably, most of the interviewees detailed their daily induction to the economy through their phones. Interviewees — young, upwardly-mobile strivers, for the most part — would fall into one of two categories: the first postponed the inevitable onslaught by keeping their smartphones at a distance in the morning, exiled to another room while they slept or put on airplane mode overnight. The others, like me, kept their phone pressed to their pillow. Their day began before they had really woken, with the first groggy swipe. In both instances, the problem at hand was one of regulation: Introducing the smartphone required a degree of deliberation because it had the capacity of catapulting or derailing a day.

I have since left New York, and have stopped checking my iPhone in the mornings because I no longer own one. (It was easier to dump New York than to dump my phone. I left New York once and do not intend to return, but I came crawling back to my iPhone at least five times before I left it for good.) Instead, when you dial my number, you’ll be ringing a flip — not the kind I nostalgically searched for when “making the switch,” the graceful Razr of my adolescence, but this gauche lump, an LG B470 pre-paid cell phone in black. Except it likely won’t ring, because I have it permanently on silent. This means I will miss your call and respond to your messages a day or so later; only when it occurs to me, which is infrequently, will I flip it open, and once I do, either flip it closed (still, after all these months, delighting in that decisive snap) or I’ll press a few digits on the numbered key pad and toss it aside. It does not hold me in a kind of addictive thrall: I need it, I use it, I forget about it. I have the same relationship with my phone as I do with my toothbrush. It is a routine activity with the wind taken out of it, done out of repetition or necessity rather than out of faith.

Since dumping my iPhone I have, according to some people close to me, been “out of touch.” Perhaps they also mean “out of sight.” By slacking on social media upkeep — a consequence of switching phones — the edges of my life seem blurred to friends and acquaintances. Staying in touch with friends online often just means staying in each other’s sight. Still, I am often confused by the haptic invocation of this metaphor — “out of touch.” The corporeal experience of being up to date or updated with “the news” these days is, for me, hardly one of a sensation, of touch’s warm buzz, but rather one of glazed insensitivity. I suspect that I am most “out of touch” when my attention scrolls down the feed in numbed perpetuity.

A new sense of dread accompanies checking one’s phone in the morning. It can feel like waking up and tuning in to the apocalypse

There is no measured rhythm to the present. As Henri Bergson wrote in Concerning the Nature of Time, “every duration is thick; real time has no instants.” Our experience of the present — what we might call presence — is constellatory and gooey. When we are (in the) present we are immanent to the past and the future; each moment of presence is thick with all time. The term “present” comes from the Latin praesent — “being at hand,” a moment we are “in touch” with.

But online, we inhabit an unrelenting present, where artificially spatialized time appears severed and successive. The present is announced by the externalized whims — notifications, replies, mentions — we swipe at, scroll past, click through to. On Twitter, for example, each tweet’s timestamp — 17 min, 42 min, 3 hr — announces time since. Time, rather than passing, continuously refreshes. The latest is, of course, predicated by news, or by whatever resembles news. The unrelenting present is continuously under threat of assault from the caprice of one man’s sleepless whims. A new sense of dread accompanies checking one’s phone in the morning. It can feel like waking up and tuning in to the apocalypse.

I suspect that I am most “out of touch” when my attention scrolls down the feed in numbed perpetuity

In the unrelenting present of the internet, we speak of our “online presence” as a metric, as something to be managed, presence as appearance rather occurrence. Rather than the thickness of duration, the unrelenting present is a thin slice, each moment already feeling past, already anticipating the future. For example, Robin D. G. Kelley writes in the Boston Review that, after learning of the internet-fueled feud between Cornel West and Ta-Nehisi Coates through emails and voicemails left by his friends who demanded he take sides, “I felt like I was being summoned to see a schoolyard brawl, and, now that I no longer use social media, I was already late.” The unrelenting present cannot be kept up with, cannot be grasped, because each moment arrives to us “already late” and immediately demands that we offer the newest, hottest take. This is why I distrust the political imperative to stay in touch with “the news” since the election. To my knowledge, the habit of staying rabidly up to date doesn’t offer viable political solutions precisely because the unrelenting present of social media, which has sped up the dailiness of the news cycle to a minute-by-minute rhythm, presses us for a reaction. For instantaneous judgments, for liking. It does not leave time for reflection.

“Time for reflection” is a fine way to describe the morning — a place where the unrelenting present should be kept at least 10 feet at a distance, banished in another room. Morning’s place inhabits the immanence of presence — each sunrise echoes all the sunrises that have come before it, foreshadows all that will follow. I do not come to this place with aspiration or striving. I come to it with melancholy, with grief. I hit snooze, I wake up late, I stay in bed in a half-woken delirium, letting time pass. Once I was telling a friend about “Mornings After,” and she mistook them for Mournings After. Her mondegreen reminded me of the last entry of Roland Barthes’s Mourning Diary, a study on grief which he began writing the day after the death of his mother: “There are mornings so sad …” In less than six months, he would be struck and killed by a laundry van. There are mornings so sad. When we wake, we mourn the end of the day before. But more, we mourn another day of this life.

This essay is part of a collection of essays on the theme of CIRCADIAN MEDIA. Also from this week, Linda Besner on off-peak evangelists, and Adam Fales on morning show-ness.

Ana Cecilia Alvarez’s words on art and women, among other topics, have appeared in several publications, including the New Inquiry and Vice. She lives on a hill in Los Angeles.