By Mike Wheaton
Today, as always, I passed the Walmart, Sam’s Club, Lowe’s, Chipotle, and Starbucks just before turning into the parking lot of my one-building community college campus. It’s in a part of Orlando called Lake Nona™. The trademark symbol is real. If I kept driving, I’d pass the high school next to a middle school next to an elementary school next to a Publix shopping center. Hitting a third straight red light, I stuck my hand out the window and wondered if writing a book about my inescapable consumer semi-reality might be my ticket to another school back up north with old buildings and historical plaques next to the doorways.
I’m taking a break from grading in my office on campus now. I made my first-year writing students take a position on the packet of questionable discourse I provided about how—or to what extent, if any—addictive social media use on smartphones plays a role in mental health. Most of their theses so far claim that, basically, the role is huge and the effect is bad. Even with sources to use, as their papers go on, the evidence is mostly anecdotal: it hurts when they share and don’t get many likes, or when others share something and do get hundreds of likes, or when they compare themselves to the curated surface life of the people in posts with hundreds of likes, or those whose numbers extend into the thousands. They feel worse still when they post more in attempt to make up for the disparity and get fewer likes than before in return.
My office on campus has a window. I used to be a substitute teacher, and somehow my much better job is still not enough for me. I sit in my swivel chair with this document on the screen and I’m looking outside at the Applebee’s—oh wait, that’s a Chili’s—and I’m remembering the time I took over a seventh-grade English class for three weeks twelve years ago. This was home in Jersey, before I moved again to Florida. Middle schoolers didn’t have social media accounts then. One day the lesson plan prompted me to teach a short story about kids during the Civil War who pretended to be older so they could fight for their side. They were seeking glory, the idea of which had been propagandized on both sides. The students had trouble understanding this. Why would they sign up to die like that?
I said, Let’s do a poll. How many of you want to be famous one day? Every damn hand in the room shot up. Now keep your hand up if you believe you will become famous. The hands didn’t budge, fingers reaching to the ceiling.
Out the window of my office, I can’t quite see the manmade lake from which this part of the city took its trademark. They’re building a fresh Holiday Inn in my sightline. Now I’m thinking about the class period earlier in the semester before the discourse packet, when I asked for how many students is their smartphone the last thing they see before they sleep and the first thing they see when they wake. Every damn hand in the room shot up.
In this same class, when I asked the students to fill out a form about the credibility and usefulness of a source, a quarter of the students wrote down the number of views a video had on YouTube or the number of shares it received on Twitter. I didn’t even take off points. I get the confusion. I make my little note in the feedback. I know how students can be about their grades. The numbers, more than anything, matter. The numbers, they’re told, are revealing to people with powerful opinions. They don’t matter, except of course they do, because a while ago people decided they did, and it’s probably too late to change since it’s easier to try getting the right numbers or settle into whatever other people believe the numbers do reveal about you.
My phone buzzes face-down on my desk. Little Apple logo shining at me. I flip it—a screen of notifications: missed FaceTime, Amazon receipt in my Gmail, new Bank of America offer, a few likes on Twitter, someone going live on Instagram, a prompt for food from Uber Eats, an episode of Filmspotting for download, a trade in my ESPN fantasy league. I’m struck for a moment by how much my phone screen looks like Lake Nona™, or how much Lake Nona™ looks like my phone screen. All the squares of logos. Disney World, after all, is only fifteen miles west. But I remember, too, years ago when Amy and I rented a room in the lower east side of Manhattan for three weeks. One night, a local told us that decades ago this part of the city was littered with needles on the streets and creeps walking in the shadows, and now cleaned up and sold off, it’s a tourist town. I mean, we were vacationing there. He kind of missed the needles.
Years later, Amy and I bought a single-family pitch-roofed ranch in a part of Orlando with streets that wind through tunnels of live oaks. It predates Disney and affordable AC. When we first drove through, looking for a home, Amy said, I love it. It’s so Old Florida. Each neighborhood in the suburb looked as if preserved from the late 1950’s. The super-highways rumbled farther up the main roads. I liked the area too. It did seem more authentic, but in the context of this sprawl, it was just another brand to choose.
Class in five. I’m not prepared. I can’t write a book about the inescapability of consumer semi-reality anyway without misplacing value on the number of people who, if they don’t buy it, at least know I did. And what to say about the fact really? Congrats, there is quite possibly no such thing as history except what sold. Go for the glory. Quantify me. Inflate my grade.
Michael Wheaton’s writing has appeared in Essay Daily, DIAGRAM, Bending Genres, Rejection Letters, HAD, and other online journals. He edits Autofocusand hosts its podcast, The Lives of Writers. Find links and more at mwheaton.net.