Technostalgia: From Analog to Digital, Memories in Technology
From Small Pox on the Oregon Trail to the 2016 Election
I’m a child lying at the foot of my parents’ bed. Translucent dust motes float in a sunbeam cast above me, rising and sinking and wheeling off of one another. I have recently been taught about molecules, that all the things in the world are made up of them. I know molecules are supposed to be too small to be seen with the eye. Even so, I’m convinced I’m seeing them now, drifting above me. There are some things in the world you can see only when you are young, I think. Adults don’t know.
My little friend and I dial the number. It is answered by a woman’s recorded voice announcing the time of day. “It is 2:45 pm.” We call again and again until we hear her announce the next minute, and we are reassured. We refer to this as “Calling Time.”
My parents bring home our first computer. It is the size of a milk crate and sports the pebbly plastic hide of a toy elephant. There is no internet yet, the elephant still closed in his pen, but there are games. My sister’s and my favorite is Oregon Trail, where you put a team of pixellated neon oxen through their paces, making a series of budgetary and directional decisions that transport a settler family from East Coast to West. The game is merciless, interrupting play every few screens to inform you that a member of your settler family has perished of small pox or been swept away by the river you tried to ford. My sister and I begin to name our settler families after people we know, and we twist with glee as we send our classmates, our teachers, our neighbors, our relatives, straight to the grave.
The evil twin throws the good twin down a well. She ditches her thick glasses, dyes her hair strawberry blonde, and slips into her sister’s life, fooling everyone, most notably her sister’s fiancé who is a detective (though, one has to ask it, maybe not a very good one?). This is the plot of a soap opera I watch every day when I am 12 years old. I set the VCR for while I’m in school, recording episode atop episode until the tape bears a palimpsest of beautiful people in improbable situations. The fiancé-detective possesses a cell phone, one of the first I’ve seen; it is the size of a boot and topped with a rubbery antenna that he must extend every time he takes a call. As the fiancé-detective wanders through the forest, nearer and farther from the well where his love is trapped, the phone keeps failing him. First it has no service, then the antenna breaks off, and finally it gets lost in the leaves. Initially I take this as a warning of the perils of carrying a phone out into the world instead of leaving it safely plugged in at home. But then I realize that the writers must invent calamity after calamity because if the phone is allowed to work, then the detective can call for help, and the story will be over.
I have a research paper due. I’ve done an initial search at school and written out the URL I need on a sheet of scratch paper, numbers and symbols stretching across the page. My friend’s father has an internet connection on the computer in his home office. He surveys my scrap of paper and says, “You know if you’ve made even one mistake, this won’t work.” A minute later, he emerges with a printout of the article. Turns out, I haven’t made even one mistake.
“I realize that the writers must invent calamity after calamity because if the phone is allowed to work, then the detective can call for help, and the story will be over.
As part of my entrance packet to college, I’m assigned my very first email address. It allows you to enter a quote to appear beneath your messages. I choose “Good girls go to heaven. Bad girls go everywhere.” The next time I see my professor, he raises his eyebrows and says incredulously, “Bad girls?”
If you search the school’s internet system by user ID, it will give you a time stamp for when that user last logged on. My roommate and I search in the middle of the night to see who is still awake and may want to go out for breadsticks and milkshakes.
A man in my graduate program creates a fake MySpace profile for a woman named Amber; he affixes it with a stock photo of a round-faced blonde who looks dimly surprised, as if someone has piped the wrong filling into her doughnut. “Amber” posts often, extolling this man’s intellectual brilliance and sexual prowess, his girth of brain and penis. On his real profile, the man posts, “Women are like Nazis: There are some good Nazis and some bad Nazis.” When I recount this post to a friend, my friend replies, “Now there are two things wrong with that sentence.”
I purchase a vintage jacket from a stall at the Civic Center market. The jacket was made in the 1950s, its outside a foggy wool, its inside silk the color of a sharp new leaf. Though it is beautiful, the jacket doesn’t match my other clothes and the sleeves are too short, so I rarely wear it. One day, I consider the jacket, solemn on its hanger, and shrug it on. As I’m leaving the house, I slide my phone into the jacket’s pocket and then halt in the doorway. I’ve forgotten something, but I can’t remember what I’ve forgotten. I look down at the pocket; I lift my phone out and drop it back in. It is the pocket that is giving me this feeling forgetful remembrance, the fact that this pocket was cut and sewn decades ago in the exact same size and shape as my slim little phone.
The map is awash in red. My husband and I invited another couple over to watch the returns and eat a joke dinner, “bad hombre” chili and cat-faced “grab ’em” cupcakes. I can’t look at our guests, at anyone. I sit in the corner of the couch, my knees pulled to my chest, staring furiously at the screen. My dog has abandoned my unavailable lap for my friend’s, which is good because my friend is pregnant and can’t drink like the rest of us are doing silently and ceaselessly. I know I’m making my guests uncomfortable, but I also know that if I say one word, if I so much meet another person’s eyes, I will begin to sob. I can’t talk, but I discover I can text. I text friends far away, friends I haven’t seen in years; I text my friend sitting on the couch just next to me. This is horrible. I feel sick. I feel scared. I don’t know what to do. Their replies come back, tiny chimes that pierce the sickened silence.
I pitch the idea of writing a memoir of my experiences with technology as a way to promote my new novel. I stare at my laptop, which in such times I think of as “the damned screen,” cursing myself as well as it. What I need is a device to hang the essay upon. As I think this, I hear the word “device” doubled, tripled; it is a literary tactic, a trick, and the little machines we use. I look up “device” in my origins dictionary and discover that it has an older, fourth meaning: an intention or desire. And doesn’t every story start with precisely that?