Down and out in New York and cyberspace

I arrived on these shores with nothing more than a dream, three suitcases, and the accumulated wealth of my forefathers. I had travelled from a simpler world, where a bachelor’s eminence was measured in his tales of Dionysian conquest, the notches in his bedpost, and how many banknotes he left behind him on a restaurant table. But over the coming months I was to learn that my new home runs on an entirely different form of capital: information. And having arrived without a functioning smartphone, I was unwittingly resigning myself to a life of poverty and ignominy.


Had I been told before my departure that the powers afforded me by a $400 telephone would make or break my fortunes in this new land, I would have sneered in disbelief. But walking the streets of New York without a smartphone, I was soon to learn, is like undertaking an Arctic expedition in one’s birthday suit. Wherever I went people shuffled around me with their heads permanently fixed in a 45 degree downward slant. The eyes of an entire city glued to the wellspring of data that flowed night and day into the devices they clutched tightly in their palms.

Before long I found myself hopelessly impoverished in a land that prized, above all else, detaching itself from the physical constraints of that land. One by one I saw the great pillars of human striving crumble before me. How was I to pursue my destiny without Google Maps? What hope of love without Tinder? What outlet of self-expression without Facebook?

And such it was that I slid into a life of vagrancy and despair. Every day was a battle against data starvation. I pleaded with passers by to spare what information they could. What did the New York Times think of Her? Had anybody Liked my vacation photos? What’s the capital of Angola? But most people didn’t even glance in my direction. When you’re a hitchhiker on the information highway, it seems, no one wants to give you a ride.


I used every ounce of wit to adapt to my new situation as best I could. I learned to navigate my way around the city using an antiquated system of analogue street signage. I signed off letters with ’Sent from my iPhone’. I travelled from one Apple Store to another, gorging myself on Angry Birds and Snapchats before being driven off by Geniuses. It wasn’t much of a life, but it was my life for six long months.

Soon I fell in with a group of down-and-outers like myself. They were just ordinary folk struggling through each day with just the clothes on their backs and in their apartments. Each evening we shared what precious scraps of information we’d gleaned throughout the day. Boris’ former colleague had checked into O’Hare airport on Foursquare. Someone Paddy met two years ago at a party had Instagramed a photo of her quinoa salad. Huddled around the warm glow of our Nokias we would reminisce about times when our luck was different, before we were spurned by a society reliant on a continuous data stream of its own consciousness.


One morning whilst walking to work I noticed a large group of people standing outside a building. Flames were licking from the windows and fire crew rallied in the street, connecting hoses and winching ladders. The onlookers were selflessly recording and uploading the proceedings on their phones. I dearly wanted to help too, but I was powerless. To this day I don’t know what happened to the poor people in that building. I can only pray that one of them or the firefighters managed to Tweet a decent close up shot of the fire from inside the building before it was too late.


Months later in the depth of winter my luck changed dramatically. I was lost once again because I had no turn-by-turn GPS app to guide me home from the bars, and I strayed into a bad part of town. Three vagabonds approached me and asked if I was interested in looking at their ‘merchandise’. Before I could decline, the tallest of the group surreptitiously produced an old iPhone from the lining of his jacket. I couldn’t believe my eyes. Was my luck about to change? Stuffing a wad of bills into the man’s hand, I took the phone and ran all the way home. Doubtless the device had been stolen from some poor foreigner like myself, now finding himself slipping hopelessly into the same slough I had been living in. But I had no time for pity. When life hands you an iPhone 4S, it is divine provenance indeed.

Back at my apartment I connected the phone to my computer, scarcely allowing myself to believe my troubles might be over. But as I sat and watched my data gush onto the phone I felt a tremendous weight lift from my shoulders. I could almost taste my new life. No more reading books on the subway or pretending to text people when standing alone at parties. Now I had Candy Crush and Facebook and a whole smorgasbord of apps to sate my weary thumbs.

As I write this it has been almost a year since I arrived in New York. It would be easy for me to repress the gruesome memories of my time on the fringe of society, but to do so would be a disservice to the thousands of men and women who wake up every day to the same horrors I once did. Although I am now a man of privilege, whenever I see someone paying attention to where they’re walking or reading a print edition of a newspaper, I nod and give them a wink, and say a silent prayer that one day they too might be delivered from their suffering.