Technostalgia

Confessions of a Twentieth Century Mind

In fourth grade, my class held an Invention Convention. After a week of compiling lists of things that bugged us, each student created an invention to solve his or her greatest peeve. The most popular invention, of course, was some variant of the homework machine. I don’t remember what kind of overwhelming assignments we were dealt in fourth grade that necessitated such an appliance, but I do recall my classmates’ creations—elaborate boxes wrapped in shiny tinfoil, dotted with pretend buttons and adorned with assorted levers. These Willy-Wonka-esque machines did your homework for you—or destroyed it all together. None of my friends, however, shared my slightly weird, slightly mundane peeve: failing to receive letters from my many pen pals with adequate frequency. My invention consisted of a cardboard replica of my family’s mailbox, in which I placed an alligator-on-a-stick circus toy. When the mailman failed to deliver any letters for me, the alligator, whose jaws were operated by a handle at the other end of the stick, would simply bite him. Needless to say, my presentation drew some nervous laughs, odd stares and sympathy for the mailman. Looking back, I see it was the first instance in which I was clearly out of step with my peers in the arena of technology. While they were enjoying their first forays into gadgetry and programming (albeit in an arts-and-crafts forum), I was taming wild animals to do my bidding. They were about to merge onto the Information Superhighway, and I was contentedly galloping along my dusty Pony Express route.

And I still am. Here at Harvard, I feel out of place in a digital world. It’s not just that I still prefer sending and receiving snail mail to e-mail. (Though, in my maturity, I have come to realize that the Winthrop House mailroom is no place for an alligator.) My lack of digital doodads and hi-tech know-how is unusual in a college student of the twenty-first century, I think, but I bare this burden with some degree of pride. Allow me to explain.

I do not own a cell phone. Shocking, I know! Oddly enough, I was one of the first in my neighborhood social circle to have my very own telephone (a Snoopy phone!) in my bedroom. Many a play date was arranged on that phone. Now, however, I am one of the only people in my college social circle whose cell phone number does not grace her e-mail signature (along with a campus address, room phone number, personal website address, favorite quote, favorite quote in its original language, a joke, a recipe and mother’s maiden name). Heck, I don’t even have a signature, and boy, do my e-mails look bland!

Forgive my Jerry-Seinfeld tone, but seriously folks, what’s the deal with cell phones? I always find myself asking, “What in the Lord’s name are all those people on cell phones talking about when they walk to and from classes? Is the scenery that dull? Who are they talking to? And what of these people who religiously check their voicemail after each class, during every intermission and at dinner?” The obvious answer is that these are people with highly evolved social lives that are much more exciting and important than my own. I suppose I feel that, because I live with my friends, I don’t need to call them. If I think of something I would like to share with them, I simply hold that thought and bring it up the next time we meet. (Plus, I’d rather get calls on my room phone, as I have the coolest number on campus—really, check it out!) In 1995, Clueless darlings Cher and Dionne called each other on their mammoth cell phones at school, only to meet up in the hallway seconds later. A nation of moviegoers laughed heartily at their silliness, only to imitate it a few years later.

It takes a certain kind of person to use a cell phone in public—that is, a loud, ballsy and shameless kind of person. I, sadly, possess none of these characteristics. I once listened to a girl on a cell phone at CVS describe, in great detail, her epic quest to purchase the right deodorant. Is this the kind of intimate moment that cell phones allow us to share? I can’t help but feel that people are talking more, but saying less. When I see Cingular’s commercial for their new 5,300-minute plan, my head starts swimming. I struggle to fathom how I could fill up nearly ninety hours with pithy utterances, with or without a cell phone.

I must refrain from criticizing the masses too harshly, though, for I am what you might call a born-again cell-phone virgin. For two exciting months this past summer, I had a cell phone to call my own (get it? call?) while I was researching for Let’s Go USA. It was fulfilling, in a way, to have a phone nestled snugly in the cell-phone pouch on my purse, a pouch that had previously been reserved for Tic Tacs. Of course it took me a week or two to figure out how the voicemail system operated, but after that I never received any messages anyway. It was nice to be able to keep in touch with my parents and my boyfriend—that is, when I could. I discovered, in the forests of Minnesota and among the plateaus of Wyoming, that most of the middle of the country is not conducive to the transmittance of cell-phone waves. So now I’m back in Cambridge without a phone, and though occasionally I catch myself admiring the compactness or the brilliant blue buttons of the latest spiffy cellphone model, I don’t miss mine at all. When I am suddenly plunged into a Twilight Zone moment in which I am the only person on a street without a cell phone glued to my face, I am unsettled but also satisfied that I can take notice of and soak in the surrounding cityscape in quiet solemnity.

Oh, but there’s more. Not only am I forced to use smoke signals thanks to my refusal to cave in to cell phone-mania, but I also have an aging computer to boot! I bought my Dell four years ago, so it’s not that old, right? It gets the job done, yet some days it seems like a giant paperweight taking up valuable desk space. It only has 64 MB of RAM, which I’m told is an embarrassing figure. True, when I turn it on in the morning, it makes sickly grinding noises that used to rouse my sleeping roommate. True, when launching Internet Explorer, I like to get up and fix myself a cup of tea while the window slowly opens. Impatient friends always choose someone else’s computer to check their e-mail. Sigh. My love affair with computers actually reached its peak circa 1990, with my Apple IIGS. Late at night, I pine away for the exhilaration of traversing the Oregon Trail or tracking Carmen Sandiego, of creating Print Shop greeting cards on my dot-matrix printer or of using floppy disks that are actually floppy. My parents generously bestowed upon me a flat-screen monitor for my Dell, but despite its exquisite beauty and space-saving qualities, it’s really just a facelift masking an aging starlet who has seen one too many term papers.

But I’d have to say my exponential computer idiot factor derives most of its oomph from the fact that I have no MP3s. Really! Wait, no, I have five songs that friends sent over Instant Messenger, all of which I couldn’t find after they were sent. I don’t know how to download a song. In this day and age, this disability seems to be the equivalent of not being able to feed myself. I have no problem keeping up with musical trends. It’s musical formats that get me in trouble. In my salad days, I had a cassette-tape collection to rival all others. Then I got to high school and discovered I needed to shift gears. After developing a respectable oeuvre of compact discs, I arrived at Harvard only to be confronted by the blossoming world of MP3s. It was about then that I threw in the towel. Perhaps it was all the love, energy and money I had poured into my CD collection. More likely it was because I watched my roommate whither away, spending entire days downloading—shudder—only a cappella MP3s. (Those were dark times.) Unfortunately, now I am teased for throwing money away on CDs, but I must confess I am drawn to their neat packaging, their cover art, their portability, their character. I also like to think of myself as a humanitarian, clothing and feeding the poor indie artists of America. I have no moral qualms with downloading music. Rather, like my disdain for “Friends,” my resistance is but a stubborn attempt at nonconformity.

And finally, I don’t own a palm pilot—that is, a PDA. I must have read too many Teen magazines in my formative years, because I can’t help but giggle every time I go to Best Buy and see the giant “PDAs” sign. (That’s “Public Displays of Affection,” for those not hip to the lingo.) Using a PDA is a public display of arrogance: I’ve seen college guys whip out their PDAs and compare them like old men swapping fishing stories. (“Check out the size on this baby!”) As for me, I don’t trust myself enough to own an expensive gadget that contains all of my personal information. And using PDAs to take notes in class? Absurd! For the past four years, I’ve been using the Winnie-the-Pooh student planner and ten-cent spiral notebooks of the Mead Corporation, and they’ve never steered me wrong.

Such is the extent of my technophobia. I don’t see myself trying to catch up anytime soon. Right now I’ve got to pack my trunk for spring break. I’m going home to Florida to see my folks, who are the current users of the aforementioned summer cell phone. I’m sure my dad will be dying to show me the latest gizmo he’s installed on his fast computer, and my mom will make me watch one of her new DVDs on our fancy TV. I no longer have a litter of pen pals to keep me amused, so I think I’ll put the gator in the backyard, pop some cassettes in the ’88 Toyota MR2 and go for a peaceful drive through my antiquated little world.

Kristin E. Kitchen ’03 is an History of Art and Architecture concentrator living in Winthrop House. Her campus phone number is 3-3333. No joke! And please don’t get her started on those people who use headset phones. As if!