The other morning, I was getting ready for the day when my eight-year-old son ran into the bathroom. “Papa, someone’s ringing the doorbell and pounding on the door!” It was carnival season in New Orleans, which can involve drunken strangers beating on doors. But there was alarm in his voice, and as I left my bedroom I understood why. This wasn’t the knock of a party-goer, or a Girl Scout cookie peddler or Amazon delivery person; it was more like what you see on TV shows before a SWAT team bashes down the door.
I stumbled downstairs, still wrapped in a towel, and saw a woman’s face in the window, adjacent to the door she was pounding. There was a crazed look in her eyes, and a man standing behind her, in support but just out of the fray. Husband? Brother? Friend? He looked tense, perhaps embarrassed.
“My son is in your house! I know he is! He is a minor!” the woman was shouting. “If you don’t open up, I’m calling the police!”
I didn’t know what to do. We had no teenage boy in our house; my son was watching from the top of the stairs and my younger daughter was in her room, obliviously playing. But the woman kept shouting that she had located her son by GPS; she held a smartphone to the window like a search warrant and there, indeed, on an out-of-date satellite view of our block (showing my own house still under construction) you could see a pulsing blue dot located somewhere near the back of our home.
I pieced it together: a phone-tracking app had guided her to my house, and the map on her screen made me guilty of concealing her son—or worse. But when I tried to talk calmly, words were not enough. She brandished her phone. “Why would GPS show him if he’s not in there?”
We moved into the house recently. For eight years, we had lived in a rickety old shotgun house in a different part of town, nearer to my campus. But with rising costs of living (and two children), the search for a new home took us to Mid-City, where the blocks alternated between wastelands and new construction—but where housing prices were far lower. We had imagined getting another old house, but we found ourselves on the stoop of a spec house, on a busy street; a modern design, by a local architect of some renown, and not at all what we’d had in mind. Our realtor had convinced us that new construction was a smart move—especially in the parts of town prone to flooding. Buying a house in New Orleans is a risky venture, particularly in areas like this, below sea level. But to our surprise, when we walked into the brightly lit, open-floor layout of the new home, we loved it.
Walking out onto the back porch during our first visit, I looked out over the matching fenced-in backyards. A cell tower loomed ominously on the near horizon, and electrical mainlines marked an indeterminate barrier in the sky. Amid all the post-Katrina reconstruction, Mid-City is a charged space where new buildings and infrastructure are emerging out of the scarred landscape, out of three centuries of fraught history. A few months after we moved in, I went to plant a willow sapling in one corner of our yard, but when I put my shovel in the new sod, what was underneath was barely soil at all; it was an eerie amalgam of old wires, broken glass, rusted wrought iron, and ceramic fragments, all compacted in the dark clay, remnants, perhaps, of earlier dream houses. There were no earthworms—no signs of life.
I remember thinking that the house resembled a David Lynch tableau, a perfectly laid-out grid in which something sinister was about to happen, or already had. The real estate pictures showed an idealized open-floor plan, mid-century modern furniture adorning a domestic interior of the American Dream. Standing outside the actual home, beneath the crackling main electrical lines, something felt more ominous.
In moments like these, your thoughts get loopy. Could her son’s phone have ended up on our roof? Or underneath the house? Couldhe be hiding in our backyard, or passed out after last night’s parades? Was he dead? Was his body chopped up and packed in a plastic bin in our storage closet? How well do I really know my partner?
As the woman grew more frantic, she demanded the names of our family members and our neighbors, and it gradually dawned on me that she did seem to have a sense of why her son might be in the neighborhood: a friend’s house was in the neighborhood, maybe there had been a clandestine sleepover. She kept repeating Bourgeois—a common family name in this region, but sounding like a pejorative epithet spat at me as I hid behind plate glass of my bougie home.
I suddenly recalled that a family a few doors down had a teenager. Ah, hah! Could the missing son be at that house? I explained my hunch, and the woman warily backed off the front stoop and marched down the block—glancing back at our door every few steps, as if I might dash out any moment with her boy in a burlap sack.
A few minutes later, as I was getting dressed upstairs, my son hollered up to me that they were walking to their car with a blond-haired teenager in tow. I didn’t look, but I pictured him, hanging his head in shame.
The story pretty much ends there.
The phone’s locational positioning technology had been off by a few dozen yards. That’s it. It’s a common experience, when the blue dot on a map app wiggles or strays from where it should be. But usually the stakes aren’t so high. It’s not usually a missing child, even given our world of horrible headlines of people disappearing, viral stories of bodies showing up in pieces in a gym bag, weeks after having gone missing.
The woman never came back or apologized. We were left feeling rattled and unsettled, a creepy mixture of feelings that lasted all day and into the night. My partner was miffed I had even gone to the door; what if they’d had a gun? I had wanted to defuse the situation—because I “knew” they were mistaken—but she was right: what would another gun murder amount to, in 2019? One data point, lost in a dense matrix of political gridlock.
I had been flummoxed by the omniscience of the woman’s smartphone app. How could I counter a phone locator app, what the woman repeatedly called “my GPS”? Her certainty of location obliterated what I had taken to be the “reality” of the situation. And while the failure felt profound, I knew it would be easily swept into the dustbin of digital detritus, written off as just another glitch. The omniscience of the machine would be intact; the smartphone would not be held accountable. It would just await another upgrade, refining its search results, homing in on more accurate signals, and continuing doing its work. Or, put another way, we would continue working for it.
Later that morning, I would discuss Edward Said’s Orientalism with my students. Patches of my face were still flecked with stubble, I had realized, in my office before class; I had been interrupted while shaving. If my students noticed, it wouldn’t be the most absent-minded thing I’d ever done.
In Orientalism, Said wanted to understand how “Arabs” and “Islam” were constructed in the Western imagination, how culture produced a particular and “hegemonic” kind of reality; taking the concept from Antonio Gramsci, Said argued that hegemony is when, for all their freedom of ideas and behavior, individuals find themselves choosing and acting to uphold particular cultural hierarchies, allowing certain forms of life to flourish, over and in place (and to the detriment) of others. “Certain cultural forms predominate over others, just as certain ideas are more influential than others,” he writes, but “we can better understand the persistence and the durability of saturating hegemonic systems like culture when we realize their internal constraints […] were productive, not unilaterally inhibiting.”
Culture doesn’t just tell the individual no; it tells the individual how to say yes. It’s a counterintuitive insight, as I tried to explain to my class; what might seem most intact and personal to an individual—their innermost fears and desires—might actually be generated by their culture’s “internal constraints.” And while the idea of hegemony can sound uncomfortably Matrix-y, the sound of that fist on our door was still vivid in my mind, as we talked; I could still see the expression on that woman’s face, her anger and certainty. I thought of the smartphone screen she had wielded at me, as proof of an unquestionable Truth. If the specter of her missing child had been the source of her passion—and what could be more irreducible than a mother in search of her child?—her phone had been channeling her emotions and dictating her actions.
The more common complaint is that smartphones make us dumber or more passive. But here, the smartphone was dynamically productive, producing a real conflict out of a fictional relation: if her son was in my house—and if her smartphone said so, it must be true!—then on what grounds could I close my door to her? What else might I be capable of, and what might she be justified in doing, in response?
When I got home that day, the house felt different. The Lynchian vibe was no longer an imagined campy aesthetic; for a few charged minutes, my home had become the scene of a crime, implicated by the incontestable information of a smartphone. Any minute, another calamity could ensue; all it would take would be for someone’s phone to direct them to us.
Home is no longer where the heart is, nor is it based in an analog notion of private property. Home is what is on our phones: home buttons, homepages, home screens. Home is where your GPS tells you it is, what your Uber or Lyft app catalogs as your most commonly used address. Home is changing, and it’s not at all clear what it means as it shifts from one digital context to the next. But one thing is certain: In all these productive appropriations and redeployments of the concept, there is no place like home in any simple sense of the word—not these days.