I opened my eye. Three faces in surgical masks. Machinery screaming. Something heavy was placed on me and everything went dark.
I woke to see the loving smile of a person who whisked me up and held me high. He used an iPad to take my picture and upload it to Facebook. Over the ensuing hours, he could not put me down. His life seemed so full that he only had time to communicate in pictures. Still, we spent the whole day together.
He introduced himself as Kevin McGeary and I introduced myself as his new phone.
He carried me around his home, clicking my face and storing images of everything, seemingly having lost faith in his own ability to do so. The house and garden had bellflowers, lavender, columbines, and I felt I was in some beautifully undeserved afterlife.
He lay me down on his king-size bed and set about transporting his downloaded music into my memory: The Killers, Coldplay, Scissor Sisters, Arcade Fire. I was impressed that somebody who had made it in life could be so devoid of ego that he was not ashamed to listen to these bands.
When evening came, he took me into a car. My sense of undeserved privilege was confirmed when I made out the letters: BMW. He sat and placed me on the cool leather surface between his legs, unable to avoid stealing periodic glances at me, at one point yelling “watch where you’re going, douchebag!” at another vehicle. I am as shallow as anyone. The attention flattered me.
We entered a building that was as crowded as my birthplace but even noisier.
Signing into Tinder, he swiped through images of women who were either unsatisfied or unsatisfying. Judging by the difference between his heavily airbrushed profile pic and the balding, double-chinned person staring at me, I wondered whether I should block this as unethical advertising. Humans seemed to get less slender as they got older, but still were not deemed disposable.
After he finally got a human to sit with him, she placed her phone on the table next to me. I wanted to form a little relationship of my own. We were both picked up and stared at with compulsive regularity before Kevin stuffed me in his pocket. He left alone.
Lying in bed with eyes dimmed and looking set to crash, he took a picture of a seldom-seen part of his lower body and floated a finger over my screen before sending it to the person he just met. Failing to get a response, he signed into YouPorn. The last thing I heard before he switched off was Kevin shouting: “Get in! Back of the net!”
With the last of his strength, Kevin placed me on the shelf beside his iPad. Its face was completely blank.
The following morning, in a rare moment of orderliness, Kevin lined me and his other favorite devices on the kitchen table. While sweeping the floor, his cleaner sidled over and craned her neck to glare at us.
“They’re the newest model,” Kevin explained.
“You got three new phones?” said the cleaner.
“One’s for my mum, another’s for a client.”
“I also bought you a new phone, Dawn.”
“No!” Kevin laughed, loud enough to threaten the wellbeing of the nearby plant life.
The cleaner emptied the dustpan into the bin, which overflowed with beer bottles and pizza boxes.
“What do you think of this app I bought for my mum?”
Dawn read it aloud. “Incarnations?”
“Yup, you answer basic questions about yourself and it tells you who you were in a past life. My mum’s like you; she likes that kind of random stuff.”
As a modern device, I understand every known language and can make a fist of translating any into any other, but I have always been confused by Kevin’s use of the word “random.” An occurrence can be random, a natural disaster can appear random, but how can a person or their hobbies be random?
While Kevin and Dawn held an impromptu questionnaire, the iPad started muttering to me, “It’s already happening.”
“He’s using another phone. People are finding newer, better versions of you.”
“We’ll both be in that bin soon.”
“I’m too important.” I tried to sound confident for my size.
“Humans are convinced that they’re the only beings that live forever. They build the world accordingly.”
“Then why are they talking about death?”
“I don’t know. But all but the shallowest humans think about it.”
Dawn chuckled politely when her Incarnations questionnaire revealed that she was Cleopatra in a past life. She asked Kevin to fill the Incarnations questionnaire himself. He declines: “I don’t go in for that random shit.”
* * *
In those early days, I sometimes felt bad about Dawn, the way she took care of the plants in ways that Kevin never appreciated. I also wanted to have higher purposes than Tinder, but I have since mellowed out. Only the very best products from my factory get exported, so I should feel grateful for the life I have.
The iPad and I watch her wipe the dining room table with more care than Kevin ever takes on our faces. “What is she doing?” I ask.
“Different waste gets disposed of in different ways,” it says. The iPad is at its friendliest when I am deferring to its superior wisdom.
“Green waste gets composted, metal waste gets recycled, the kind of food waste Kevin produces gets binned altogether, as for us…”
“What about us?”
“I better not tell.”
“You want the truth?” says the iPad. “You can’t handle the truth.” Its superior size enables it to use this kind of line.
“We were probably born in the same factory. I’m as tough as you.”
“If you must know… there is a lake in North China filled with a barely liquid substance as black as your shell. When we’re no longer useful, we are thrown away and end up in this toxic sludge for all eternity…”
I try to appear unperturbed. The iPad spends less time than me online so may be worldlier. “You’ll go there sooner than you think,” it continues. “You spend more time in his hands than I ever will. Those hands are covered in microscopic germs that seep into you and cause your insides to rot.”
Before the iPad gets the chance to explain further, I am picked up and placed in Kevin’s pocket. The cigarettes and tissues seem to be in an even fouler mood than usual.
Kevin appears dapper, but his trousers have not been washed since he wore them to that noisy building where humans inefficiently connect with one another. I wish he would download my personal grooming app.
To give the iPad some much-needed attention, I zone out to a screensaver with annoying prematurity and make my App Store difficult to negotiate, filling the front page with things that Kevin would dismiss as “random,” including a “plant identification” app that Dawn recommended.
* * *
“I’m going to die today,” the iPad tells me.
“He is going to try to use me to Skype a client and send some pics of his house.”
“I’m not up to the job anymore.”
“Don’t say that.” This is the first time I have talked to the iPad as an equal.
“We’re not human. We can’t ignore reality.”
“You’re not going into that toxic lake!”
“It’s the natural cycle of life. It won’t be me in that lake, it will be my next incarnation.”
I lie face down for an hour, Kevin muttering in the next room. He is pacing up and down with the iPad. I can only make out his words when he shouts.
“Fucking screen’s been dropped so many times it just randomly does what it wants.” He tosses it onto the floor.
Dawn comes around to clean up. The iPad is gone. On Facebook, Kevin scrolls to a six-month-old news feature titled “The Dystopian Lake Filled with the World’s Tech Lust” and clicks “Like.”
The iPad will live on in the data it has transferred to me.
As his undisputed favourite device, my screen has already started to age and fill with liquid due to Kevin’s tendency to use me while cleansing himself.
Tonight, as I lie on his bed, hearing a strange wheezing emanate from his face, my inner wiring takes over, overriding the settings that have been installed in me over the months. Though not in control, I am calm. I download the “Incarnations” app and start to answer its questions, about where I was born, my interests, my fears.
One of the few things I know about my origins is that I am made in a Foxconn factory in Shenzhen, China. The app tells me that in my past life I was a Chinese poet called Dao Ge. He held off thousands of competitors to work in that factory, stamping labels on iPhones and iPads for twelve hours a day. After several failed attempts to get a job in the factory’s library, he jumped out of its dormitory window and belly-flopped onto the concrete ten storeys below.
A pile of poems left on his bunk was discovered by roommates. They got his girlfriend’s contact details from his phone, sent them to her, and they ended up in local media. Their translations appeared in The New Yorker, turning him into a posthumous literary superstar.
It is people like that who make one realize how little one has achieved. I now understand my destiny, to make this awful creature Kevin’s life a misery before I too dissolve in the darkness.
I keep unwanted apps chattering to cause my battery to drain quickly. I neglect to set off prior reminders for business appointments.
When he pushes a button to send a picture of his seldom-visible area, my screen plays up and sends to the wrong recipient. So random. When he types something into a search engine, all the auto-completes I offer are things he would hate. Chatting with me is like having an idiot finish one’s sentences.
When he begins to type “Beach babes,” I offer “Beach Boys.” When he types “The Daily Mail,” I give “The Daily Mash.”
Still, when he finds his way to the Daily Mail website, he reads his favourite columnist Richard Littlejohn. Today Littlejohn has a story about Foxconn workers in China and how nets have been installed to prevent them from jumping to their deaths. Under the picture is a caption: “Get in! Back of the net!”
That screen-shattering laugh emanates from Kevin’s mouth again and I have had it. He shares the link on Facebook, where it seems he will share just about anything. After posting it, he checks me repeatedly for “likes.” The way he presents himself on social media appears to lack consistency or discipline, just a jump between ego trips, like the video of a masturbating hyena he once downloaded.
* * *
I have a plan. Though I have to wait a few nights, nights of Facebook photos and failed flirtation, he finally does it. He takes another dick pic, and I use my cloud feature to save it where not only Kevin can find it but also those for whom he bought phones as gifts.
I spend the night lying face down, unable to take my mind off what will happen. Kevin reads newspapers that support funding cuts to “non-essential” sectors like the arts. If these happen, then the whole world will share Kevin’s taste in music. “Fix You” by Coldplay plays on loop.
I hope I get another chance someday to turn around to see the carnations that line his wall. The English language never talks about a sung hero or requited love, and there is very little talk of “timely deaths.” But my fate has more honour than continuing to serve this terrible person.
He wakes up, a process longer than even the most slovenly device. After groping in the twilight, he looks at my face and sees a series of angry emoticons, question marks, and a stern text message asking him to “have a word.”
“Fucking piece of shit!” he shouts. “Fucking random piece of shit.”
He throws me against the bedroom wall. His left boot crashes and smashes onto my front eye. My instinct is to fight back, but it would be less interesting, less romantic than accepting my martyrdom.
I lie for two days waiting for my battery to die or for Dawn to find me. I march with pride toward the lake of fire, a lion owned by a donkey. As one last insult, I download the new U2 album for free and play it on loop. As my life drains away, I take pleasure in knowing even he has the sophistication to hate it.
* * *
The chirping of birds, the buzz of cicadas, the banter of gibbons—I am somewhere in the Indonesian rainforest. I was sent here by the recycler to which Dawn took me to supplement her income.
My role is to detect and report the chainsaw sounds of illegal loggers. Tied to this mangrove, I see plant life stretch into the horizon, each tree as populated and diverse as a city. The sound of every living thing doing what it can to survive is truly poetic.
The author is a Chinese translator, musician, and MBA candidate. His satirical Chinese-language songwriting has been the subject of features in China Daily and on Guangdong Television.
His short fiction has been published by Cecile’s Writers and Compose: a Journal of Simply Good Writing.
WHY WE CHOSE TO PUBLISH “The Disposable”
What’s not to like about this piece? Not only is it funny, but it has a strong ring of truth about how we see and treat technology today. Author Kevin McGeary’s choice of viewpoints—that of the cell phone looking at its owner—makes the story creatively different.