Let’s imagine Khamet, a young scholar in Egypt, 2,018 B.C.E., the year Abraham was born in the Babylonian city of Ur. On a high, open shelf, Khamet finds “The Story of Sinuhe” on a scroll—two wooden dowels, about 12 inches high, onto which a 30-foot length of papyrus is rolled left and right. This paper is made of special reeds that, lain flat, adhere to each other by their own natural gum. Khamet hefts down the scroll, brings it toward his body, hugs it to himself until he lays it on a table. Here he unrolls the texts inscribed with special inks made of burnt wood and acacia sap. A fragrant woody scent, reminiscent of the scroll’s natural origins, wafts up. Khamet visits his favorite books so often, that he can recognize them not only by touch but by their individual scents. These perfumes etch the words into his memory on a cellular level. Tonight, at dinner, he will recite a portion of the story to his family, by heart. He traces the words as he reads, the raised edges of the letters as familiar to him as the brailling that won’t appear for another 3,809 years, when Napoleon’s soldiers had to devise a way to send night messages without exposing their location with light.
To open this scroll is, for Khamet, to spread his arms wide—an inviting gesture that has lodged itself into his strong arms and muscular back. His burly wrists turn in coordination as he reads. This is the only scroll he will read today, spending time to discuss it with his fellow scholars, ruminating over it as he walks home by the Nile, where the papyrus grows wild, and crocodiles eyes peek above the surface of the green waters.
Let’s now imagine Jennifer, 2018 A.D., a student with her smart phone. She’s opened her free Shakespeare’s Sonnets APP, but texts are pinging in, and Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest notices. She has plenty of time, she thinks, and taps over to Pinterest, and scrolls, scrolls, scattered images and words spinning into a blur. She is as devoted to her scrolling as Khamet is to his. But whereas he practices an expansive gesture, spreading open his arms all day; Jennifer curls around her phone, like a conch, small and cramped. Khamet has defined biceps and lats—Jennifer has texting claw, Tinder finger, carpal tunnel syndrome, and cell phone elbow. Khamet strides into the world with his head up; Jennifer is hunched and distracted—no fragrance, no exercise of her muscles or capacity to memorize, no seeing the scenery or greeting others for long talks as she walks.
Because it’s the same glassy surface all day and most of the night, her fingertips are dulled to touch. And as she scrolls, the message to herself is—hurry to the next thing. Dismiss. What’s next? What else? Go away. Her brain is enchanted by this flick, flick, flick, this not having to stop, this constant running-away-from to something from-which-to-run-away. Gertrude Stein once wrote that to know someone’s nature, notice what she or he repeats. What we repeat is what we become. Jennifer is always hunting, never arriving—a life of fleeting dopamine hits. Nothing sticks. Nothing lasts.
Jennifer will not remember much, if anything, what scrolled past her today. Instagram promises “Along with making over-posting a non-issue, the new feature also eliminates the permanency.” Jennifer has been entrained by her scrolling to skim—skim past nature, skim past people, skim past her own sensations.Tonight, Jennifer will not recite a sonnet to her family. She will scroll through dinner as her family scrolls, too. She will swipe away this day as she will tomorrow, all blurring into each other. And, oops, she forgot to read those sonnets, and, after making thousands of scrolling decisions, she ran out of willpower to even brush her teeth last night. And now she’s already late for class.
Between Khamet and Jennifer, we had Jack Kerouac, who wrote his travelogue On the Road, on one continuous 120-foot scroll of paper in a three-week binge. His manuscript, like his travels, were one continuous, unbroken, cohesive artifact. In comparison, with today’s smart phones, we scroll away our lives, in a blizzard of confetti.