Hitting the Technology Wall

Do you have a zinf?

It’s going to happen any day now.

I’m not talking about the day that the Mayans are supposed to return to Earth and destroy us by depolarizing our aura, which is not scheduled until 2012. I’m talking about the day we wake up and suddenly no longer understand technology.

No generation has escaped it—one morning, your skill with the eight-track or the record player or the cotton gin suddenly ceases to impress. It’s just one of those inevitable disappointments that come with growing up, like the realization that Santa doesn’t exist or the way that music always takes a turn for the worse after you turn 30. But for our generation, the pain will be especially acute. We’ve grown up on social networks. They’re how we communicate, how we notify acquaintances of our relationships, how we make purchases, even how we keep diaries. What will happen when they are no longer there for us, when that mosquito ringtone “too high-pitched for adults to register” starts to elude our hearing, too?

This prospect terrifies me, so much so that I sometimes wake up in a cold sweat and go running to the nearest computer to surf the Facebook pages of middle-schoolers. Tweens, the media repeatedly informs me, have their collective fingers on the pulse of the times. If anyone would know what’s in now, they would. (Apparently, I should be monitoring Nick Jonas more closely.) Last time I checked, I detected no worrisome references to new technologies, but that might be because I was using a public terminal and had to stop after only three hours because people were giving me strange looks. I know it’s going to happen, though. Someday, casually surfing the web, I’ll notice people posting about new technologies with names like “harking” or hear young whippersnappers asking each other, “So, do you have a zinf?” I just used the phrase “surfing the web.” Do people even say that anymore? Or do I sound like one of those old folks who asks if you’re “going steady”? How can I know?

(At this point, I usually run to Circuit City and demand “one of everything.”)

Now I can live in denial that such a day will ever come—though, inevitably, it will. The problem with technology, as with fashion, is that it’s impossible to be “in” forever. Yet in fashion, cycles repeat themselves. In 50 years, this sweater will be hip again. When that day comes, my laptop will not only be obsolete, but all my neighbors’ kids will also have chips implanted in their faces that allow them to “zinf” together. My only consolation will be this sweater, which will be unbearably hip.

And so I frantically scramble to keep up. I almost subscribed to WIRED, but then I realized it was a print magazine and couldn’t possibly be hip to what was going on. Instead, I started following my peers on Twitter. “Never!” I shout, clutching my smartphone in my cold, carpal-tunnel-ridden fingers. “It can’t happen to me!”

But there is a fate worse than obsolescence. It’s the kind of obsolescence that doesn’t realize it’s obsolete, the sensation you get when watching your mother try to “make a blog.” I see it happening all around me. Politicians and professors are all having Rip Van Winkle moments. They lie down for a brief nap after some ninepins, wake up, and suddenly everyone around them is “tweeting.” But then, unlike Rip, they decide to join in. Anyone who’s ever read the tweets of people like Senator Chuck Grassley, an adult who should know better, can justifiably shudder. Don’t they realize that the only people who actually spell the phrase “see you later” as “CUL8R” are those undercover cops who pose as 14-year-olds to catch online predators? These sad Twitter feeds are the technological equivalent of those old women on buses who wear four-inch heels and T-shirts that describe them as “2 Hot 2 Handle.”

Perhaps it’ll be better just to let go gracefully. Life has its trade-offs. As you age, you lose things like teeth and the ability to play in the ball pit at fast-food restaurants, and you gain things like experience and employer-based health insurance. Maybe what has kept our generation so enmeshed in technology is the fact that most of us lack actual lives. All that time that we spend tweeting our thoughts and emotions to our next of kin, we could be writing the great American novel, starting a business, or just living. Maybe on the not-so-distant morning when I wake up and realize I have don’t have a clue how to zinf, it’ll be because I’m doing something more important.

But, just in case, I should get back to tweeting now.

Alexandra A. Petri ’10 is an English concentrator in Eliot House. Her column appears on alternate Fridays.