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Last weekend, my 21-year-old sister organised a surprise party for her boyfriend. I got added to the WhatsApp group chat with her and his friends for it. Because I am 30 years old and have a certain amount of self-respect, I don’t have Snapchat, but all the other group members did. Several times, my sister had to remind everyone not to open Snapchat at any point on the evening of the surprise, or her boyfriend would be able to see that all his friends were gathered in a pub suspiciously close to where she was taking him for dinner, because of the app’s map function.
This made me a little sad. As it happens, Snapchat maps sound like hell to me. I’m looking for fewer ways to be traceable, not more, because I am now of “do not email me under any circumstances” age. I don’t mention the Snapchat maps thing in a “kids these days!” kind of way, though. There’s a part of me that wonders whether the ubiquity of this kind of conduct in the generation below me is linked to a weird fixation people online seem to have about being kidnapped at any moment. There is a whole disquieting sub-genre of TikToks where people give advice on how to do things like leave enough DNA evidence of yourself in an Uber so that your driver can be prosecuted when they murder you.
But if, in 2009, my Motorola Razr had a function where I could have found out when people were attending parties I hadn’t been invited to, I would unquestionably have turned that on and made myself miserable with it. And the maps function on Snapchat indeed makes it easy to organise impromptu get-togethers and, no doubt, the knowledge that dozens of people who care where you are do in fact know where you are makes people feel safer in some ways. So Snapchat maps, or the dedicated app for this purpose, Find My Friends: fine, if you like, why not.
I was sad because it made me wonder whether disappearing is a dying art. When I was having a hard time last year and feeling selfish and melodramatic, I toyed with the idea of running away. Not in a particularly serious way, but the will was there. I wanted to vanish, for a while. I ran through how difficult this would be to pull off. Leave a note for relevant loved ones saying I was fine but not to look for me (as I said, melodramatic), but if people did want to track me down, they could do it with very little effort. My phone, bank account activity and computer searches such as “Albania Airbnb near sea” would all make short work of ending my little self-pity jaunt. In some ways, this is obviously a good thing, because if I had done a runner it would have been extremely annoying of me and because people do sometimes go missing when they’re a danger to themselves or others and need to be found.
In other ways, though, I think it’s a shame. The desire to go missing was in part a drive for something slightly different from just vanishing. I wanted, at the time, to be truly alone, but in a way that had the potential to make room for interesting things to happen to me. It’s something I can’t help noticing every time I read a contemporary novel. If a character needs to be out of reach for whatever reason — and this seems often necessary to advance the plot — the novelist has to do something with the phone. Break it, leave it behind, put the character in one of the diminishing number of places without a phone signal.
Vanishing was also something I wanted because I could tell that I feared it. In a short-term way, being away from everyone and everything is possible. I can go for a walk without my phone, but I don’t do that. Why? What lies beyond immediate contactability and the distraction of what other people might want or need me for at any hour of the day that scares me? It’s not that I think I’ll be in any actual danger, but more that I’m in danger of realising how much of my life I waste just in being reachable. I love texting people, to an almost deranged degree. I am so rarely alone with my thoughts anywhere. And I know from my limited experience that that kind of alone-ness is the time when good, productive thinking occurs most readily. A writer friend told me recently that they often go for long, phoneless walks in the forest near where they live. I told them, “I hate that,” not out of any regard for their safety in doing this, but because I hated what it said about me.
The slight sadness I felt about Snapchat maps wasn’t about eye-rolling at young people and their phones. It was a recognition that, were I in their position, I wouldn’t be brave enough to opt out of it, because I don’t opt out of any of the existing ways in which I am terminally distracted by the need for contact from others. And perhaps I should.
Imogen West-Knights is the author of “Deep Down”
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