The moment the 2017 Women’s March on Washington became real for me was the same moment I realized we were all technologically paralyzed in its immense shadow.
I’d made the eight-hour trek down from Boston with my mom, aunt, and a friend, on a nearly sleepless overnight coach bus, a trip that had been organized by a grassroots community of women I’d only ever met on Facebook. At 8 a.m., crick-necked but exhilarated, we pulled into the deserted Navy Yard neighborhood of Washington, D.C., on the fringe of the city. I’m only human, and the first thing I do every morning is look at my phone, whether or not I’ve spent the night on an under-padded bus seat that doesn’t recline far enough. So as we lurched to a halt, I whipped out my iPhone to text folks back home to let them know we’d arrived safely, then gratuitously posted to Instagram a picture from earlier of my friend and me looking bright-eyed on our bus seats, captioned, “Fired up, ready to go! En route to the #womensmarch.”
I watched as a few early-morning likes trickled in, then switched apps to open Google Maps so I could lead my famished family on an easy Metro ride to the city’s opposite end for a pre-march brunch at the Coupe, in Columbia Heights. At this point, the nascent march was beginning to form in the city’s central nerve, the National Mall, but as we moved from southeast to northwest we were merely passing through its orbit. As we filled our bellies with life-affirming scrambled eggs and french toast, I of course uploaded a picture of our meal to my Instagram story — and then took another peek at Google Maps to make sure I knew how to get us back to the Metro so we could finally join the march.
I navigated all of these apps the way I always do: with unflinching ease, blindly faithful that an iPhone in hand is a lifeline, and taking my technological reality entirely for granted. When we arrived at our destination — the Archives stop on the Metro — that reality shifted.
I knew the station platform was unusually packed (people stood too far over the cautionary yellow line, inches away from the train as it pulled in), but from the platform itself it was hard to gauge the true size of the crowd. It wasn’t until I got to the top of the escalator and turned around that the density and intensity of what I was joining really hit me. On instinct, I snapped a photo of the unending sardine-like conditions, adamant protest signs already hoisted in the air, and immediately fired it off to the friends and family I’d contacted earlier. “Made it!” the text accompanying my arresting photo said.
But it wouldn’t send. I watched first as a “Not Delivered!” notice flanked the photo attachment, and next as the status bar on the text containing the words “Made it!” stalled out about two-thirds of the way through sending. Then, before finally failing to send, the status bar on the text switched from blue to green, an iPhone’s way of notifying users that it’s aborting iMessage, which requires a Wi-Fi or cellular-data connection, and downgrading to a simple SMS text instead, which use the same networks as phone calls and are normally reserved for messaging with Androids or moments of very poor cell-phone coverage. I was watching my iPhone attempt to eke out some degraded form of communication before all contact was lost.
What the heck, I thought, as I halfheartedly focused on leaving the Metro without being trampled.