Katherine plods through the grocery store, in desperate search of the item she needs. She’s never been to this location before, and finds herself disoriented by the layout. The aisles feel somehow maze-like, and every choice she makes seems to be a wrong turn. Especially when she encounters an exchange she rather wishes she didn’t have to hear. Because it reminds her that our society is doomed, should it be counting on future generations to carry some sort of torch for survival. Better still, some trace of still being human.
“I have to teach you to start using a computer soon,” a father tells his four-year-old son in what appears to be a miscellaneous aisle of the store. You know, where notebooks are sold in the same area as, say, a pool float. The father declares this statement so matter-of-factly and so out of nowhere. It’s unclear why his barely coherent son should need to start using a computer, but such are the times we live in. The millennial generation was “trained in computers” early on, with the arrival of the “computer lab” in the 90s setting the nation alight with all kinds of potential for how to keep children occupied a.k.a. babysat by an unpaid machine.
From games that engaged you to guess the right capitals of every state to Oregon Trail, there seemed like plenty of reasons for fourth graders to be placed in front of a computer for roughly an hour a few days a week as part of one of their many “classes.” A helpful guide to give them some insight into what might be their future. In the present, however, it seemed like overkill to equip children with any kind of screen too prematurely or extraneously. What with every parent and educator knowing that their entire future would be filled with this nefarious apparatus. This isn’t to say that the best approach in managing children and technology was to be a Luddite, but it is to say: why not keep them off “the sauce” for as long as possible before they had to irrevocably join the matrix?
Perhaps the ultimate mark of innocence in a child now was not whether they still believed in Santa Claus, the Tooth Fairy, the Easter Bunny, et al., but if they had been outfitted yet with a smartphone. In which case, of course they would know that the slew of mythical holiday-based mascots was nothing more than phony baloney created to feed the capitalist machine.
The father, whose name remained unknown, resembled a doughier Jason Sudeikis to Katherine, lingering nearby for some reason to hear what other horrific thing this patriarch might say to give her insight into modern parenting. And maybe “Jason Sudeikis” was simply the inherent look of all dads in suburbia. As though they had once shown promise on some high school sports team, only to let their bodies go when the marriage contract and kids arrived. Like many, these dads had to ask, “Why bother trying too much now that the ‘glory days’ had passed?” Their only comfort in this era was to live vicariously through the youth of their own children. Except that youth was being mutated in such a fashion as to barely exist—and by parents just like this Jason Sudeikis figure.
For how could any child experience the joy of “true youth” whilst locked inside on the tit of their screen? Sure, generations before had known something similar with the arrival of television, and then cable—but computers and the internet were something different. This was a multi-tentacled juggernaut designed to provide so much “choice” that, in the end, the only choice one really had was to stay inside as much as possible—bike riding and physical activity of any kind be damned!—suffering from the information-action ratio. No wonder attention spans in children had dwindled to practically nothing. If you couldn’t get your message across within the length of a TikTok video, then fucking forget about trying to convey anything.
This is where a new class divide was forming. In the poverty-stricken or plain middle-class youths, there was a patent push for more screen time to keep them occupied. Among the rich, who had been responsible for creating screen dependency in the first place, there was now a push away from “all that.” A.k.a. all that gaucheness. Because screens, despite the wealth of information they could provide, rendered people fundamentally daft (Millie in Fahrenheit 451 still being the key foreboding symbol of such a fact). Children couldn’t learn half as much from a YouTube video touting guts and blood as they could from the pain of experiencing a cut or other “IRL” wound incurred from the outside world. The disconnect between the practically applied and the “seen on screen” was becoming a chasm too large to mend. Katherine, despite being childless, wanted to weep at the thought of it.
The four-year-old, whose name turns out to be rather fey (Simon), doesn’t agree or disagree with his father’s appraisal that he needs to “learn computers.” Instead, he just points to some analog toy in the aisle indicating he wants it. The father ignores what his son is expressing and says, “No, no. Come on Simon.” It is a small moment, but one that Katherine can see, from her perspective as an objective bystander, will be a significant bifurcation in Simon’s life trajectory. These are likely the last instances he’ll even think of being truly interactive. Soon, after Jason Sudeikis Dad teaches him how to use (a phrase that conveniently applies to drugs as well), he’ll forget any notions he once had of “playing.” Or being riveted at all, really, by anything other than the screen.
Katherine watches them go to the cash register to pay for the items Jason Sudeikis Dad had deemed worthy of purchasing (batteries and a pack of red meat). Some part of her wants to quickly buy the toy that Simon had pointed to and smuggle it to him as some act of faith that it might help him overcome the fate of most children “these days”: surrendering so much earlier in life to becoming an automaton. But she represses the urge and instead goes to pay for her own goods: a box of tampons. She wasn’t the spawning kind, after all.