Friday, March 16, 2007

#106 - Wired


3/16/07 (#106)

I have been assimilated.

Last night when I got home from work, I plugged my cell phone into the charger by the door, went to the computer and plugged in my iPod and Palm PDA to sync and recharge, and suddenly felt like the character in a Sci-Fi movie who had been replaced by a perfect replica of himself---his wife had never noticed, his daughter had no reason for suspicion, even the family dog had missed the moment the subterfuge began. Heck, even I didn't notice the change---but there I was, tethered to the world with a trio of electronic umbilical cords.

While I have long had an appreciation for electronic devices (as a home music studio owner, gear catalogs cause enough excitement that they ought to arrive in plain brown wrappers), I am also my mother's son, my mother who refers to each of the high-tech features on my father's car as "one more thing to break." It is not a matter of thrift (though a pinch of that ingredient certainly exists in the mix), but a combination of Emersonian self-reliance and quiet anti-consumerism. The former is merely a New England birthright; the latter developed as corporate marketing departments began out-sizing Research and Development teams, an org-chart revolution that pursues success not by filling a need, but by convincing the customer to buy things they do not need at all.

Need---now there's a verb rarely heard at the electronics counter. (At least not as Mr. Webster intended--- a video gamer's chair with built-in joysticks, sound and vibration would surely be fun, but it's hardly a need.) I observed the proliferation of cell phones over the last decade, but I don't live a life that requires urgent contact; I watched as PDAs (Personal Digital Assistant for anyone more oblivious to gadgets than I am---surveys say there are two of you out there) became the must-have accessory for the digirati, but I already carried a small notebook that easily handled all of my mobile documentation needs; I witnessed the rising ubiquity of digital music devices, but had no interest in purchasing an over-priced, glorified Walkman. I wasn't taking a political stand against technological advances, nor was I defying trendiness---these were simply items for which I had no need.

So how does a man who has no need for electronic gadgets---and for that matter, no desire---come into possession of a collection of microchip-laden widgets?

I was not dragged kicking and screaming into the 21st century (or would that be 20th?), but was coaxed to it, the way a cat is lured to your side my gently flicking your finger under a blanket. In this case, the hand under the blanket belonged to my brother Tim. While we are related, Tim and I would not be referred to as "two peas in a pod"---in fact, if we played brothers in a movie, you'd probably complain about the poor casting. He pedals hard, I like to coast; he reads voraciously, I get a swelling of pride when I finish a long article in the New Yorker; he is single, I'm married with a child; he probably has a savings account, I raid my change jar so frequently that if I ever find it with more than three quarters, I feel flush. But as most brothers know, a brother's love has nothing to do with all of those details---like war veterans, our bond is built on our shared experiences; our differences are irrelevant. But the technology gap was a difference that Tim apparently couldn't tolerate, and thus he dispatched the digital asp into my analog garden.

It started with a surplus Palm M500, rumored not to sync properly with his upgraded PC---though at the time of this upgrade, PDA architecture was making great leaps forward (color screens, web connectivity, built in qwerty keypads, cell-phone capability), so I suspect his efforts to make this generations-old monochrome Palm M500 work were akin to the driver of a 1977 Toyota Corolla failing his DEQ emissions test one time and using that to justify the purchase of a new Honda Accord. When the M500 arrived in the mail, I had no idea what to do with it. Literally. It had a calendar, but I have one of those on the fridge at home; it had a place to store contacts, but I hardly need an electronic device to remember the names of my friends; it featured a to-do list, but my "events" would read, "eat breakfast" and "find fresh excuse to procrastinate on writing childrens books", things I always manage to get done without an electronic reminder; the only feature that intrigued me was the memo pad, but the thought of inputting anything substantial using pokes from a stylus seemed as difficult as writing The Lord's Prayer on a grain of rice---sure, it could be done, but it doesn't seem like an effective use of time. As near as I could tell, Tim was simply using the postal service to take out his trash. But I did a bit of research and found a full-size fold-away qwerty keyboard online---I often joke that the combination of Palm and keyboard provides me "the least powerful laptop computer on the planet", but all jokes aside, the Palm quickly became a constant companion. (I'm typing this column on it right now.) I don't know the exact timeline, but in roughly a year, I went from ignorance about even the basic functions of a PDA to complete dependence on it; if it broke today, I would be devastated. (Though I must admit---perhaps this is genetics---if it did break down, I'd be setting my sights on the PDA equivalent of a Honda Accord.)

The iPod was Tim's birthday gift later that year, a sleek silver Nano that captured my fascination as soon as I turned it on. (Which was about 4 weeks after my birthday, because I was still convinced I didn't need it.) My daily dog walks were completely invigorated by the easy access to 25 hours of diverse music, and I'm sure my neighbors enjoyed the transition, each day concocting new explanations for the awkward body movements that resulted from the thumping beats I was piping directly to my brain. ("I think he's trying to impersonate the gait of an ostrich"; "Today he's evading an invisible bee.") 25 hours allows me to anticipate a variety of sonic responses to a dozen different moods---let's see the Walkman do that.

The cell phone resulted from Tim's visit to Portland---he had cajoled me many times about getting a cell phone, and seemed to view my refusal as tantamount to saying, "Yeah, I've heard good things about cars, but my horse is healthy, so I'm holding off." He came out to visit for a few days, and we made plans to shoot pool at Rialto ("shoot pool" being a euphemism for drinking) and 10 feet from the entrance he spied a wireless store and insisted I get a phone---a dirty trick, making a cell phone the only obstacle between me and a string of tequila-based libations. (But a generous offer, as I was then unemployed and he was the benefactor of both the phone and the tequila.) Now that I have this little Star-Trek-communicator-looking device, I can't believe I ever left the Enterprise without one.

So it's 2007, and my copper-wire connection to culture is nearly complete. I still have to upgrade from dial-up on the home computer before I can get my digirati decoder ring, but I have taken great strides in making my creature comforts entirely portable. I recall hearing about this kind of life in advertisements from Apple or Dell, I just never thought it was my life they were describing.

But what fascinates me is not that I am now a junior varsity Inspector Gadget---indeed, my electronic utility belt is bested by the contents of the average 6th grader's backpack. What fascinates me is how my conversion to the electronic mindset occurred so seamlessly---I went from zero interest to completely enamored without even noticing. I experienced a similar transformation regarding parenting, recalling many times in my 20's when I said, "I don't care if I ever have children" yet being certain at 40 that no one loves being a Dad more than I do. Even the little things---I once mocked fans of Mark Ruffalo's so-called "acting", yet have recently found him incredibly charming. These quiet metamorphoses force me to ponder the other items in my life in which I claim to have no interest---as I age, will I find talk radio intriguing and informative rather than self-righteous and annoying? Will I one day feel a need to apologize for my years spent dismissing the supposed comedic genius of Martin Short? Will time eventually alter me so significantly that I might one day enter a restaurant and utter that most unfathomable of phrases, "Can I get that with mushrooms?"

Perhaps. Except the mushrooms----science has yet to discover a health regimen that will allow me to live that long.

©2007 wpreagan

PS Many thanks, Tim.