I spoke to the professor a few days following the incident. We met after class in a large hall where he had just spoken on the origins and contemporary implications of the phrase “be here now.”
(as reported in The University Times)
“Ninety percent of my students are quite disciplined as regards cyber distraction,” the professor began. “I’m graced with a wonderfully applied student body and I feel a great kinship with them. There’s very little use — or abuse — of social media in the class unless they are reporting on its various platforms and influences as part of their classwork.
“Still,” he sighed and shrugged, “at the beginning of each semester, I show them a clip of ‘Invasion of the Body Snatchers,’ in which alien abductors ‘podnap’ the human species while they sleep, spin them into cocoons, and return them to society as ‘pod people,’ soulless conformists who act mechanically in the interests of the invaders.
“I liken cell phone use in class to the behavior of the pod people in the infamous film, pitched to the studios as an anti-communist allegory, in which the body snatchers represented the creepy-crawly abductions of an unsuspecting populace by the communist menace. They have essentially been stolen.
“We had just finished discussing the meaning of the film, when SnapChat released a new gender-transformative app,” said the professor. He explained that the new GenderBender mobil phone app renders any targeted selfie into a gender-opposite portrait.
“Before I could say ‘Instagram,’” he continued, “a cluster of students had plunged into their phones. “As I watched, they began to change appearance. Superficially at first. Hair shortened or lengthened, became tinted, streaked… Makeup materialized or disappeared to be replaced by beards.”
The professor paused. He seemed to be re-living the moment. “Body parts disappeared as the GenderBender app transmogrified each body to fit its targeted selfie dimensions. It was impossible to determine if any SnapChatterers were aware of their transformation.”
He leaned wearily against the edge of the stage and stared down at his hands. His speaking cadence slowed, his voice grew distant. “They just… began to morph, their outlines flowing like syrup. Yeah,” he said. “They flowed in this… this viscous, pixelated fluid. Toward each other, but still IRL.” He leaned toward me. “ ‘IRL means ‘in real life,’ but…” he paused and looked around him. “They weren’t really here,” he whispered.
He began to pace the space between the stage and the front row of seats. His voice rose in pitch. “It was as if they all became one… one entity. I dunno,” he said, running his fingers through graying hair. “I dunno… They came together with a gurgling sound and just…”
The professor clapped his hands together, the slap echoing around the empty lecture hall. “…disappeared. There was a ‘pop’ as the atmosphere closed around the space they had occupied. You know…” His eyes turned steely gray and he stared through the window. “Like the kind of ‘pop’ you make if you stick your finger into your mouth, like this…”
He hooked his index finger into the corner of his mouth. “Pop.”
He laughed a little hysterically, brought himself to full height, pointed to the door at the back of the empty hall, and roared a strange, hollow, open-mouthed hiss.
An awkward silence followed; I was unsure that he was aware of my presence. Finally, he shuddered, shook his head and shoulders and turned to face me.
“I’m over it now,” he said. “But sometimes, when I walk around campus, I have to sidestep a head-down, out-of-body student, surrounded by the cocoon of her iPhone. Then, the final scene of that film comes back to haunt me.”
# # #
Writer, editor, and educator based in Los Angeles. He's also played a lot of music. Degelman teaches writing at California State University, Los Angeles.
Degelman lives in the hills of Hollywood with his companion on the road of life, four cats, assorted dogs, and a coterie of communard brothers and sisters.