Show me your tabs
(For Pat Armstrong and Anne Burdick)
“Show me your tabs! Can you believe it? That’s what she asked.”
Tom was meeting Kieran for a drink at a pub near the station. It was something they continued to do even though their initial efforts at relationship didn’t work out. He’d been to a job interview earlier that day, his first ever, and was really keen on the job: a writer for a design start-up specialising in voice operated UI and chatbots. He’d hoped his background as a poet would give him an edge over the other candidates.
“I didn’t know what to do. Is it a thing now, does this happen to everyone?”
“I haven’t heard of it. I like your haircut though,” said Kieren, hoping the ambivalence she felt didn’t show through.
“Thanks. I can’t believe they asked me that though?! It’s weird, right?”
“Totally. So, did you show them?”
“At first, I thought: I’ll say I forgot my phone, but then I thought, what if she can see the outline in my pocket? And then I thought, maybe this is just the chance I need, maybe my open tabs indicate how cool I am, how good I’ll be writing copy for the bots.”
“I showed her, her and the other two dudes on the panel. I also thought, stupidly, that maybe this wasn’t part of the interview. Maybe she was just interested in my tabs, because she sensed I was an interesting guy. Maybe we could go on a date. I actually thought that: maybe I’ll ask my future employer on a date at a job interview. Is that hedging your bets or the death drive at work?”
“But it’s kind of intimate, right, showing someone your open tabs? And it’s spring, you’re on heat.”
“I’m an idiot. Anyway, I showed them. I couldn’t believe how many I had open. Some of them seemed kind of irrelevant, word searches on wikipedia, unfinished restaurant bookings, where to buy a fish spatula…”
“Seriously?! What the fuck is a fish spatula? Just use a normal spatula.”
“It’s worth it, trust me. Then there was a heap of articles in places like The Guardian, Wired, Fast Company. I thought that’d work in my favour.”
“I reckon they’ll be more interested in the other stuff. Your fish spatula. What were your word searches on?”
“I can’t remember.”
“Oh, come on.”
“Show me your tabs!”
“Show me!” Kieran started to jokingly grab at Tom’s pockets.
“OK, OK, righto. Let’s have a look.”
“Begging the question: I remember looking that up. Someone being interviewed on the news said it the other night and I wanted to check the meaning. I remembered someone had sent me an article on the phrase a while back, the kind of thing you use to be a smart arse. Apparently everyone uses the phrase the wrong way. It just means a logical fallacy: Australia is the biggest Island on the planet because it has the largest land mass. That’s begging the question.”
“Oh, right, I always thought it just meant begging, as in demanding a response yet to be given.”
“That kind of makes more sense in a way. But its wrong. What else have I got open. Ah, the history of the thought balloon. Now that, surely, is going to work in my favour.”
“Thought balloon? Tell me about that.”
“Well, it derived from the speech bubble, but shows what a character is thinking, rather than what they say.”
“You know, it comes out of the character’s head via these little puffs, bubblets, that lead up to a bigger puff that contains text or another image. Shows you what they’re thinking. Usually in the air above their head.”
“Shows you their tabs.”
“Ha, yeah, I guess so. Never thought of it like that.”
“What else have you got?”
“There’s one on data moshing. God, when was that from, I’ve gotta close some of these.”
“You know, like the video for that band, the pencil, what was the song called…I’ll find it, give me a tick… ‘The most evident utensil’, by Chairlift, here, watch this.”
Tom handed Kieran his phone and the edged closer together to watch the music video, close enough for their shoulders to touch. Tom wasn’t really watching the video, like he would when he was alone, or even with a friend. He was watching it vicariously, watching and imagining what Kieren was feeling while she watched. A circuit formed between them. But what was Kieren thinking? Was she watching the video wondering what Tom was feeling as someone who was sharing it with her? Or was she just lost in the unique, pixelated distortions in the music video that made it seem as though each different scene kind of emerged from within the scene before? Or was she thinking that the lead singer in the band was kind of cute? Tom looked at her while she watched, only for a second, at her hair, brushed behind her ear, just an impression. She scratched a light itch on her cheek and looked across at him.
“It’s cool. How does it work?”
“I forget. Something about there being too much data to process. I was going to use it as an analogy, I can’t remember what for. A contrast to the kind of imaging techniques used in brain scans and robot vision in films. Like in Robocop and Terminator.”
“Hmmm…” Kieren passed the phone back.
“Now it’s your turn: show me your tabs!” Tom held out his hand and nodded.
“Pass me your phone. Lets go through your tabs. Only fair.”
“Come on, I showed you mine.”
“Can we not, alright?”
“OK then. Someone’s got something hide.”
“Maybe someone does.”
Tom started to fixate on what tabs Kieren might have had open and whether it was only a matter of mild embarrassment that for whatever reason she found particularly irritating, or something more profound.
When Tom got up to go to the toilet, Kieren pulled out her phone and started deleting her open tabs. If someone had been looking at her from across the bar they would have seen a person looking down at their phone, a misleadingly slim and lightweight object for all the attention and personal significance it commanded at that moment. That person would have been holding the phone in her right hand, resting it across her slightly splayed, outstretched fingers. She would have been using her thumb in a range of vertical and horizontal stroking motions to navigate and cull from the stream of information that would remain invisible to the imagined observer. Kieren’s thumb would hover to the side of the screen while she assessed whether the information should be kept or hidden. As she did this, the observer might have just noticed a small protrusion moving across her face, under her cheeks and lips. Her tongue, inspecting the inner cavity of her mouth, at once caressing and checking, as though in some time of mirrored dance with the activity of her hands.
If the same observer, or a different observer with the same means and intent to report, was watching Tom while he sat on the toilet, they would have seen a comparable and yet different gestural display as he looked through the windows that were open on the browser of his phone. Tom would have paused in-between scrolling up and down in a manner similar to Kieren. He would have bent his head down and brought the phone up to his forehead, feeling his hair on the knuckle of his thumb and for a second eclipsing the bright circuit of detail relaying between his mind and the surface of the screen.
“You can go through them now”, said Kieren, when Tom returned to his seat at the bar. She handed over her phone. Tom looked at her quizzically and took it.
“Top 4 adult dance classes in Sydney. Is plastic microwave safe? The ultimate Gratin Dauphinois recipe. Skim reading is the new normal. Stakker Humanoid on Wikipedia. Let’s have a look at this one, ha ‘the first truly credible UK acid techno record to break into the mainstream.’ Cool album cover.”
“I saw an exhibition with the music video and felt I needed to know more about it. I went down a massive rabbit hole looking at the UK music scene in the late 80s and early 90s. Found myself looking at images of raves in the home counties and listening to playlists from the period on Spotify.”
“I don’t think I’ve ever been to a rave”, said Tom, starting to picture versions the scenes Kieren described using references points from the Australian landscape and fragmentary moments from his own memory of parties and photos of parties. A glistening body of water and blonde grass seemed a crucial part of the setting, and two cement tanks on a hill. He couldn’t hear the music, but he could feel a distant sense of the excitement and anxiety from his earlier adulthood. The figure he was imagining in this landscape looked down at the ground, it was white gravel and as he walked it made a crunching, static sound. Tom had stopped reading the Wikipedia entry.
“Do you want another drink?” Kieren asked.
“Sure, one more. A gin and soda please.”
“Lime or cucumber?”
“Either is fine.”
When Kieren came back and put the drinks down on the table she did so with a sense of ceremony that made Tom feel as though he was about to hear something of importance. Some big news.
“I’m thinking about buying a house.”
“Was that what you didn’t want me to see in your tabs?”
“Yes, it was. I was always going to tell you.”
“You must have landed in some cash.”
“My grandad left me some money. I’m sick of sharing a house and I can afford something if I move a little further out west.”
“Fantastic. Cool. Do you have anywhere specific in mind?”
“There are a few places.”
“Can I have a look?”
“Sure”, Kieren found the listing on a real estate website and showed Tom.
“Nice. Very light. Not too far from the station. It’s meant to be a good area.”
“Yeah, I mean, I probably won’t get it, but the ball is rolling. Big time. Once you start looking it’s like another part-time job. And the city gets reconfigured too. You start looking at houses differently. It’s hard to walk past a real estate advertisement and not read it carefully. I’m continually placing myself in different living rooms and looking through windows or glass sliding doors into the brighter world outside.”
“Very adult”, said Tom, “still a long way off for me.”
There was a rare not uncomfortable silence for a while after this and both Kieren and Tom took sips on their drinks, before Kieren excused herself to go to the toilet. Tom pulled out his phone in her absence and checked his Instagram account. A couple of old friends who he hadn’t seen in years were posting video stories of babies hugged close to chests or being shared around at gatherings, others featured holidays on the other side of the world where it was still light, and a number showed celebratory occasions involving food, friends and family. There were a couple of stories of the ‘cat’ and ‘I’m working late’ genre, one connection had posted a video of someone eating a bagel with a knife and fork with a ‘Yes/No’ graphic overlaying the image, another had taken a screenshot of an online thread he’d started asking the question ‘what does Black Ice car freshener smell like?’, to which people had responded with replies like ‘Good luck with that one bro’ and ‘Can’t help but I love that car freshener too mate.’ Tom closed the Instagram app and clicked into his Gmail. Nothing new. He opened his Photos. He’d taken a photograph of an arched passageway in a row of terrace houses on his way to work. It was a dark passage with a decorative fence in the foreground, leading to an illuminated, green garden in the distance. The context preceding, during and after he took the image came back to him. He’d walked past the South African builders he saw every morning having a cigarette on the sidewalk. He’d always look into the house they were working on. The facade was missing so he could inspect the emergence of an interior that resembled a conventional living space. In a way the signs of change were like little notifications. He imagined the interior augmented with little digital icons making explicit the new additions. Every time he heard the South Africans talk he remembered the one South African friend he’d had in his lifetime and the different bits of Afrikaans slang he’d taught him and the way he’d tried to preserve the memory of this time in his life by continuing to perform the different phrases he’d learnt. And what would your mother say, eh?
At this point, if an imagined observer had been watching Tom from across the bar, they would have seen him put his phone in his pocket and survey the room, perhaps admiring the successful efforts on behalf of the designers to retain elements of the old working class pub, right down to the digitally reproduced stains on the new carpet. Or perhaps he was thinking the opposite, and despairing at the dearth of places in this overdeveloped part of the city where you could get a beer for under ten dollars. Perhaps he wasn’t even thinking about the specifics of his surrounds. Perhaps he was thinking about Kieren and her plans to buy a house, or the nature of his feelings for her and how one kind of love can transform into another that had different sets of now seemingly intuitive action potentials and could in a way be just as sustaining as the initial hopes of romance that had drawn him to her. Our imagined observer would never know. But they would be able to see Tom pull out his phone again, press the identification button with his thumb and appear to open another app.
If the same observer was afforded a perspective into toilet stall where Kieren sat they would have seen her looking at images on her phone. If the observer was able to zoom in from above and behind they might have been able to see the content and just hear the sound of the videos she was watching. However, the observer wouldn’t have had an opinion on whether or not watching videos of people with beautiful hands crushing fruit, popping bubble wrap and typing on keyboards was a strange thing to be doing on the toilet. The observer wouldn’t have felt the erotic feelings that Kieren felt, nor the secondary and in a way more pleasing, yet subtle feeling of being reassured that she was able to feel in such a way. The viewer wouldn’t detect the internal feedback between the physiological warmth that came with arousal and the desirous feelings and thoughts about the images themselves. The viewer would have no sense of how important the suggestion of bones and veins under the skin was for Kieren, of the temporary yet total fixation on the way the skin mediated these interior forms, the light and shadow in the room, and the impossible to grasp textural complexity of the skin’s own surface, with its little fissures, pores and tufts of hair. The observer wouldn’t perceive the nuances in atmosphere to which other details in the videos contributed, the little fragments of detail observable in the background, like a window, the wood grain of a desk, or the beginnings of a wrist. Nor would they be exposed to the barely formed imagined scenes produced in Kieren’s mind, that were like little droplets or bubbles in foam, expiring almost as soon as they became articulated. They would have no measure of the sense of anticipation Kieren felt at the thought of watching such images as she pleased, with adequate sound, in a house of her own, of temporarily inhabiting the entire space as though it were a shrine for her own fantasies. But the observer would see Kieren, on this occasion, carefully make sue that she had closed the tab before putting the phone back in her bag.