My struggles with technology date back to high school, when I’d sit and listen, day after day, as the other boys at the lunch table would describe in great detail the precise and elaborate arrangement of their stereo systems. I assumed that my inability to share their enthusiasm for speakers and amplifiers was somehow a reflection of my own flawed personality. But even now, no matter how hard I try to concentrate my mind on sound equipment, the phrase sub-woofer makes me think of dogs in the navy.
While the stereo fanatics bragged about amps and tweeters, another group — the automotive guys — revved their engines, compared RPMs and horsepower, and raced around in souped-up sports cars. Meanwhile, I had a small transistor radio that got two AM stations – three if I faced southeast — and drove a 1972 Chevy Vega, which featured a cardboard motor, and burned oil like it was lighter fluid.
The trend has continued, pretty much uninterrupted. By the time I got an answering machine, everyone else had moved on to voice-mail. They had home entertainment centers with sleek, shiny components. I had a television with fake wood-grain, and a remote control with a three-foot cord, so that if you wanted to change the channel or press Rewind, you had to walk across the living room, which was about as useful as my vacuum cleaner, the one that wouldn’t close properly and would leave a trail of dirt that I then had to sweep up with a broom.
In the early 1990s, I looked around and saw people talking on their portable telephones. True, they carried them around in suitcases and had to be standing on the roof in order to hear anything, but clearly we were entering a new age. Several of my friends had electronic address books, and their kids were playing on Nintendo 64s and Game Boys. I was still struggling to use a VCR that, regardless of what I programmed it to tape, always overruled my choices and would record only My Little Pony cartoons and reruns of Saved by the Bell. There was a cassette player in my car, but I could never find the song I wanted without rewinding and fast-forwarding through the whole thing at least six times. Cruise control and automatic seat belts made me nervous. Even basic kitchen appliances posed problems, and I often found myself stumped by a simple blender, fumbling to grasp the distinction between liquefy and purée.
The technology train had left without so much as a warning whistle. I walked to the next station, but there was nobody there, and I ran to the one after that. The faster I moved, the faster the train pulled away.
And video games hadn’t even arrived in my life yet.
When my son was seven, we began a seemingly endless process of buying game systems at exorbitant prices, then soon replacing them with newer systems that required additional controllers, memory upgrades, and expensive cables that had to be purchased separately. Sometimes I’d have to buy him the same game again, because the old version couldn’t be played on the new system. But why did we need the new system in the first place? “Better graphics,” he would always say.
Occasionally, my son would invite me to play against him. As I eventually figured out, he did this only after he’d mastered the game. As a result, I failed to appreciate the improved graphics. I was too busy trying to get my boxer to throw a left jab, or my little car to move forward, or my character to jump straight up at just the right moment in order to hop onto a passing cloud so he could then kick a duck and absorb enough energy for two more lives. But my controller refused to cooperate.
“Press the button!” my son would scream. “I am pressing the button,” I would scream back. “You’re pathetic!” he would say. “How about tomorrow we try real boxing?” I would say back.
“You have to look at the map!” he’d yell.
It was only then that I’d notice the screen was split into two sections — one showing the action from my perspective and the other from his – and that in the corner of each section was a little map that let each player know where his opponent was. As I’m sure my son realized, the map only enhanced my confusion. I was, after all, the same person who, after studying the directory at a shopping mall for a quarter of an hour, would offer to pay money to a stranger if he would lead me to the food court.
Technology has forged ahead, of course, and my son has managed to keep up. Meanwhile, I’ve been reduced to pathetic reminiscing about the good old days, when electrical things had switches that said ON and OFF. When you could stand on line at the bank without having to listen to the guy behind you ordering pizza. When people weren’t afraid to touch the faucet in a public bathroom, and a paper towel could be had with the turn of a crank rather than five minutes of frantic hand-waving.
It gradually dawned on me that my son, then in high school, was way beyond those lunchtime discussions I had endured all those years ago, the ones about stereo equipment and V-8 engines. He’d been downloading movies from the Internet and storing them on his iPod, which allowed him to watch them in the car, on the bus, or anywhere he happened to be. He had created videos with his cell phone, and learned how to upload and email them, wirelessly. He could somehow send and receive text messages to friends, all the while maintaining the illusion that he and I were having a conversation. Along with much of the world, he was hurtling into the future at an accelerating pace.
But then something strange happened. He began to circle back, as though he’d ventured a bit too far and was now seeking comfort in the familiar. One day he told me about an adaptor that he could use to connect his current hand-held device to the forty-two-inch television he had bought for himself. As I understood the logic, he wanted to take the movies that he had compressed and stored for portability and now re-inflate them for viewing from across the room. When I voiced surprise at this, he shot back, almost as an accusation: “How am I supposed to watch anything on this tiny screen?” I’d been asking the same question for a year.
“But this is where you started,” I said, and he got mad at me, almost as mad as he’d gotten when I asked him to explain, again, about those weird barcodes, the ones that look like a crossword puzzle having a nervous breakdown. But not as mad as he got, just recently, when he said he wanted to get a Commodore 64 – a game system popular thirty years ago – so he could play Pac-Man. I told him that I used to have one, before replacing it with my first Macintosh.
“You gave away a Commodore 64 and bought a computer?” he said. “Why?”
“Better graphics,” I said.
But it isn’t just him. In the past month, I’ve seen several products that indicate a general change in direction. One is an MP3 player designed to look like a cassette tape. Another is an old-style telephone handset that plugs into a smart phone. And then there’s the indispensable Etch-A-Sketch iPad holder. Suddenly, real phonographs that play actual LP vinyl records are available again, along with lamps, furniture, and clothing from decades past.
What’s the reason for the nostalgic reversal? I have no idea. Maybe it’s all been changing too quickly and we need to slow things down. I certainly wouldn’t mind. I miss my thirty-volume set of encyclopedias, and car doors that let me decide when to lock them. I kind of liked that my first microwave oven was the size of a UPS truck. I can live without auto-correct, video chat, and ring tones that sound like jungle animals. In fact, I’m tired of the jungle altogether.
If you need to get in touch with me, I’ll be at the train station. Send me a telegram.
Original cartoon art by Ron Leishman