Compliment or Caveat?
In Calvin Trillin’s 2017 essay “Unplanned Obsolescence,” Trillin ponders over the life expectancy of certain idioms, such as “broken record” and “counterclockwise.” He’s riding the subway during the narration of this congenial essay, checking the time on his analog wristwatch and reading a hardcopy of the newspaper–both of which are a testament to Trillin’s age and complementary to his point on idioms.
Throughout his essay, Trillin interweaves one idiom in particular: “All thumbs.” As Trillin rides along the “No. 1 uptown local,” he notices a teenager “texting with blinding speed” and realizes “that ‘all thumbs’ cannot much longer mean clumsy with one’s hands” because he’s witnessing a young person “use his thumbs on his smartphone fast enough to take dictation from a cattle auctioneer.”
…he notices a teenager “texting with blinding speed” and realizes “that ‘all thumbs’ cannot much longer mean clumsy with one’s hands”…
And all of a sudden, the idiom goes from implying someone is not very handy or good with their hands to perhaps a compliment implying someone is incredibly efficient with their hands– at least in relation to texting on their smartphones and, if we can go beyond the subway for a moment, a compliment to those who handle video game consoles like a boss.
To Trillin’s implicit observation that technology is transforming the meaning of common idioms, one could argue that there is something bigger going on here. Language aside, this particular idiom is also implying a transformation of our behavior. The way we think. The way we feel. The things we do. (More on this in our post Unhappiness in Happy Places.) If one is competently “all thumbs” in this new context of texting and gaming, might the idiom suggest an underlying concern that such people may be missing out on other aspects of the human experience that don’t involve a screen?
According to one source, adults in the US spent “an average of 3 hours, 35 minutes per day on mobile devices in 2018, an annual increase of more than 11 minutes. By 2019, mobile will surpass TV as the medium attracting the most minutes in the US.” (Wurmser, 2018)
… in this new context of texting and gaming, might the idiom suggest an underlying concern that such people may be missing out on other aspects of the human experience that don’t involve a screen?
If we can get existentially morbid here for a second, what does all this texting and posting and gaming and email checking and scrolling do for our lives? Now, we know there is some necessity to these actions and even pleasure in them that’s worth having. But what of the excessiveness? The binging of it? What does it allow us to leave behind for our loved ones–aside from mostly intangible, digital scraps of ourselves?
If your answer is posthumous holograms, that is not where we’re going with this one. Instead, we would argue that people who are excessively “all thumbs” will leave behind a missed opportunity to have left behind something of value.
…people who are excessively “all thumbs” will leave behind a missed opportunity to have left behind something of value.
Towards the end of Bradbury’s novel Fahrenheit 451, protagonist Guy Montag has fled the city, escaping the anticipated bombs by an unspecified enemy. Thematically, this part of the novel is not so much about a physical enemy as it is more a symbolic representation of our self-destructive ignorance stemming from the potency of personal technologies.
Montag’s wife Mildred is still in the city and, like so many in this futuristic society, Mildred’s constant connection to her digital devices blinds her from the impending war–as well as her ability to see the decaying of her and Montag’s relationship. (More on this in our post The Dandelion Test.)
As he waits out the war with a few others who are aware of its approach, Montag speaks with a man named Granger who talks about his grandfather and how he “did things to world.” He created wood carvings, raised pigeons and doves in his backyard, told jokes, played the violin. Granger sums it up best when he reiterates to Montag what his grandfather once told him:
Everyone must leave something behind… It doesn’t matter what you do, he said, so long as you change something from the way it was before you touched it into something that’s like you after you take your hands away. (p. 156)
Yet, when Montag thinks of his wife Mildred, he says, “I think of her hands but I don’t see them doing anything at all. They just hang there at her sides or they lay there on her lap or there’s a cigarette in them, but that’s all” (p. 156). Had Bradbury thought up hand-held smart devices to complement his vision of big-screen televisions and bluetooth earbuds in his 1953 novel, it would be easy to imagine Mildred being “all thumbs.” Perhaps then, Montag’s lines would have read something like this:
I think of her hands but I don’t see them doing anything aside from texting and scrolling and texting and scrolling. A blurring of thumbs over a tiny screen. Or her hands laying there over her chest under which her phone would be resting but not resting.
In today’s society, to be described as “all thumbs” can be seen as a compliment and a caveat. It’s more than okay to text your friends and family, to scroll through your social media feeds, to have at it with Super Smash Bros or Minecraft. And who doesn’t appreciate a good meme once in awhile?
No doubt, it is the 21st century. But keep the caveat in mind.
- Think of a loved one you’ve lost. What did they leave behind for you? Is it the memory of jokes or savory meals? Is it an item they made or played or wore? What is it about those items and memories that make them so valuable?
- Is there something to be said about the value of someone leaving behind a digital footprint of memories as opposed to the tangible?
- In the novel, immediately after the war ends (which is not quite long after it starts), there is a powerful scene in which Montag imagines Mildred’s final seconds where “she saw her own face reflected there, in a mirror instead of a crystal ball, and it was such a wildly empty face, all by itself in the room, touching nothing, starved and eating of itself, that at last she recognized it as her own…” (p. 160). Of course the dramatic irony here rests in the fact that it takes the reflection of Mildred’s face in the “mirror” of a dead television screen for her to realize what she’s truly become. But it’s too late, because shortly after this realization, she’s killed in the destruction she failed to foresee.
- Shut off your screen for a minute and look at your own reflection in that dead screen. What do you see? What are you leaving behind? Anything of value? Or, are you just “all thumbs”?
Bradbury, R. (1953) Fahrenheit 451. New York: Del Ray Books.
Trillin, C. (2017, December 29) Unplanned Obsolescence. The New York Times Book Review.
Wurmser, Y. (2018, June 18) Mobile Time Spent 2018: Will Smart Phones Remain Ascendant? eMarketer.