Illustration by Christoph Niemann
Their apartment was always crowded, even when it was just the two of them-their Facebook friends dropping by on their laptops every few minutes, slaying with their wit, enlivening a virtual cocktail party that never needed to end. So it didn’t. Last summer Scott McGehee and Trac Vu came to the realization that they had placed their relationship at a disadvantage, predicated as it was much more on physical presence than the fiber-optic and wireless networking site that-increasingly, it seems-defines whether what one says or does truly matters. So the two men made a few rules.
To combat their Facebook fixation, the couple adopted a prohibition: Neither one could go online while the other was under the same roof. “We didn’t want to waste the time we have together not being together,” says McGehee, a screenwriter and codirector of such films as The Deep End and this month’s Uncertainty. “Trac could have it on when I wasn’t here. I could have it on when he wasn’t here. Together it was verboten.”
Web-enabled computers and smart phones have collapsed what were once enormous distances of space and time, but they’ve also opened enormous gulfs across the dinner tables that we share with our loved ones. As crackdowns on in-car texting have proved, many of us are not going to power down easily.
Vu and McGehee knew from the get-go that their arrangement wasn’t fair. Vu’s job as an elementary school teacher meant daily Facebook deprivation, while McGehee could indulge himself online for hours at his office. Perhaps some adjustments should have been made, or perhaps nothing would have made any difference, since computer abstinence, like all forms of abstinence, is a pipe dream. “We lasted less than six months,” McGehee says. “Isn’t that pathetic? I remember moments when we were breaking the rule, and then we caught ourselves. And then we ended up not catching ourselves.”
Still, says Vu, their failed experiment has had lasting benefits. Now when Vu logs on with McGehee close by, he feels regret. Which is good, he says. “I have not been as bad as in the past. I do it with guilt but with the full intention of straightening myself out.”