Looking Over People’s Laptop Screens

Design by Alexa Druyanoff

In the midst of a lecture-turned-rant from your aged philosophy professor, you can’t help but let your eyes wander over to the half-smudged laptop screen of the guy who sits next to you.

Despite his best efforts to remain engaged, his trackpad’s cursor slowly migrates to Instagram, abandoning those lecture notes that are a whopping three bullet points long. You hold that people who use Instagram on their laptops are either 45 years old or don’t own phones, but you’ll let it slide.

“The life of pleasure gets dismissed pretty quickly,” your professor says, quoting Aristotle, or Plato, or whoever. It seems that Mr. Instagram next to you doesn’t subscribe to this philosophy. He inspects the crafted pleasure of the “life lately” dump posted by Some Girl, who you figure he only loosely knows. Maybe they went to high school together, maybe she lived across the courtyard his freshman year—or maybe you should focus your attention back on yourself. 

The pictures seem to awaken a deep urge within himself to look back at his own “life of pleasure,” opening photos on his desktop and revisiting the moments he spent in Greek nightclubs with girls who poured out bottles of Veuve Clicquot like they were tap water. You think, I know this guy. You know hundreds of these guys– one’s whose best days are those when they can barely remember the next morning. Instinctively, you roll your eyes in the most pretentious manner possible, almost hoping he sees you. Has individuality died?

Listening only to every other sentence your professor says, you catch: “The contribution it will make to your life as a whole is why you choose to embark on all these subordinate endeavors.” What contribution is stalking this guy’s laptop activity making to your life? Human nature and being observant and whatnot. You like to think you’re straying from the self-involved narrative of young adults by being engrossed in someone else’s life. 

Mr. Nightclub continues, now opening his text messages—seemingly about 20 of them from his mother. She urgently asks if he’s booked his flight home, or if he’s called his grandmother lately. You think about your own grandmother, about the last voicemail she sent you a month before she passed away. You want to reach over the seat and grab him by the shoulders, to be his mother for a second, and urge him to call her before he can’t anymore.

“Yes ma, she’s good.” he types “And I booked the ticket two weeks ago, remember?”

“Okay, just checking in. I love you!”

“I love you too” 

You’re caught off guard, but sigh with a bit of relief. No sane person is ever mean to their mother. 

Then he texts his sister, asking her how school is going. She writes that she misses having him around, and that life is a lot different when he’s gone; their mom is colder, days are duller, and she misses her best friend. He reassures her, in a very brotherly way, that she is stronger than she knows. 

And instantly, you realize you’re the worst person in the world. You wish you could un-do your pretentious eye roll and take back every thought you’d had in the past 10 minutes. He’s human, and you minimized him instantly. Even so, it saddens you that you’ve learned more about him in this silent conversation between you and his laptop than you probably ever could have in a menial encounter. 

For the first time, you notice your shared peripheral vision. It’s strangely intimate. Is he looking at your laptop too? Are you also his subordinate endeavor? The only thing worth looking at on your screen is a stream of notes full of daily oddities that you keep entitled “note to self.” This interaction will definitely make it in there, but you figure you can wait another 15 minutes till you’re alone. 

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