A modern girl, she wakes with a tension headache from too much screen time. She checks her email, toothbrush jammed in her mouth, scraping distractedly against her gums. Eyes held away from her face in the mirror, towards the reflective gem of her phone screen, the bright primary colors of her inbox glowing, she jumps with sudden fear. A tersely worded message from a credit reporting agency has arrived, urging her to check her current credit rating or face the crippling fate of certain identity theft. It takes several attempts to log into the agency portal, her thumbs pushing hard against the glass screen as though she could brute-force it, heist movie-style. When she discovers the email is just a cheap ploy to get her eyeballs on the agency’s American Express offers, she throws her phone onto the couch, betrayal transmuted into stinging chemicals flooding her bloodstream. As if she had been warmly invited to a neighbor’s home, only to find, once at the threshold, that the invitation is a pretense to sell her Tupperware, or Girl Scout cookies, or a shovelware game involving glistening 3D jewels that will parasite on her phone memory, or a rectangle of hard silver plastic with a 20.99% APR .
Onto social media, that paradise of lethargy. Her eyes glaze over as she scrolls. She wants to stop, but to stop would mean leaving the insulated warmth of the algorithm. If the algorithm had a scent, it would be expertly blended, tranquilizing lavender, evoking a high-end salon, the satin inside of a wealthy woman’s handbag, a field of delicate cosmos flowers in a high-definition, framed print. Everything about the experience is designed for maximum minimum-effort comfort; its bedroom covers of achingly sweet songs, its pastel-colored infographics, its pithy parade of funny, lovable tweets. It feels good to be cushioned by the soft waves of gentle, non-threatening information. The chambers of the algorithm are inviting, and she moves among them in a daze.
Even when she is shown something sharp-edged, like a news photograph from a war zone, or a video of a stray dog limping along a road, the algorithm quickly moves to soften the blow, to anaesthetize the sting of the cut. This is how she can go from a clip of a woman frosting a cake in rainbow colors, to a partially censored shot of a bleeding child, mid-scream, to a sunny video of a musician in a suburban backyard, strumming a ukulele. Her fingertips travel across their faces, almost like a caress, as she passes them by.
It’s not that she’s unaware of the world. If anything, she knows it too well. She is a sewer rat swimming in blood, head held just a fraction above the current. The knowledge shimmers ruby-red just outside her field of vision. If she dives down into it, in comes a deluge that quickly overwhelms: headline after headline, bold lettering on a black background. The regular news is bad enough—murder in a parking lot, the moon full above, armed robbery gone wrong, yellow tape hastily slapped on the brick walls. But beyond the gridlines of the daily periodical, beyond the guidelines of the law, lies another world that the modern girl knows perfectly well how to access. Clicking on a few buttons opens a portal to it: a world of gore, hounds, and wild terror like a fast-moving river. Traveling through this hidden world is like walking an endless open field filled with deep, invisible holes, like miles of pockmarked flesh. Breathing quickly and shallowly as the sky coldly observes the creatures moving below, so dark the air rests over the body as thickly as velvet and as unsettingly as a stranger’s presence.
From a young age, the modern girl has seen content on the Internet that she should never have seen. In this, she is one pinprick among millions: a generation of half-formed brains in fully formed bodies roaming a desert of horrors. Shrill calls to 9-11, bootleg crime scene photos, forums for the suicidal, personal recollections of prolonged drug abuse that end suddenly one day in 2013, followed only by a reply gone answered (“does anyone know what happened to her?”). A feed of content that, like a medieval painting of the underworld, is red, yellow, orange, black. A hundred-thousand faces contorted into identical expressions of pain.
So many have judged the modern girl for her cynicism, her outward bitterness. They don’t know her nihilism is not a product of apathy, but of repeated exposure to unreasonable, inexplicable, unjustified, and deeply unfair pain, and to, particularly, her observance of this pain colliding against the high iron wall of generalized public indifference. She has watched, again and again, as the victims, bloodied wrists banging against the locked door and shuttered windows, are forced to withdraw back into the field, to fall back into its pits, again and again. There’s nothing as cruel as the way we live, so exhausted by the end of the day by the stupidities of what we do to earn money that we can do nothing but make excuses, skirt around the discomfort, and play endless cellphone games.
The cracks in her schedule—the thirty seconds that she sits on the toilet, or the occasional foray into the flesh realm, as she crosses the street or commutes on the train—are hurriedly filled with the off-white drywall plaster of posts, videos, and 500-word newsletters. She has to avoid even a second of introspection. When she looks up, she sees others doing the same. Another young woman, eyes hidden by the shadow cast by her woolen beanie, licks her dry lips as her pointer finger slides across the glittering diamond-face of her phone. The modern girl watches her, waiting for the traffic lights to change.