I am from the future.
This occurs to me as I sit on a couch near a window in a second-floor apartment in central San Francisco.
I am at this very moment hearing, for the second time today, the muted rinnnng-rinnnng-rinnnng of a dial-up modem issuing from the open window of a nearby apartment.
The first time I heard it, my boyfriend was sitting on the couch with me.
“Is that a dial-up modem?” he snorted.
But the way he said it made “dial-up” sound a lot more like “dumbass” or “douchebag.”
I snorted my assent.
Yeah, it did sound like a dial-up.
Do they even really make those anymore?
It sounds so antiquated, prehistoric, even, the way it has to ring two or sometimes even three times before the signal bumps through.
I picture some little old woman hunched over a Macintosh Quadra 950, squinting at a spinning black-and-white pinwheel.
I picture a humongoid dump somewhere in Central Africa where piles and piles of abandoned dial-up modem boxes sit among other e-detritus like vanquished monarchs, moldering in the equatorial heat, belching out, from time to time, the most forlorn strings of beeps and blips.
The first of these images makes me smile.
The second makes me frown.
Because it seems so unfair!
It is a God-damned miracle, that scrappy little dial-up modem, or at least it qualified as one in pretty much everybody’s books just two quick decades ago.
Then, I was a bored, awkward middle-schooler giddy with the prospect of chatting up teenaged nerds from exotic, faraway places like Toronto and Vancouver, B.C.
Our family was on the CompuServe network. We had, as I recall, just a few-hundred minutes of chat-time allotted to us per month.
My older sister and I battled endlessly for possession of those precious minutes. Once, after a particularly venomous confrontation regarding which one of us was actually hogging more of the chat time, she tried to sabotage my blossoming Internet romances by unplugging the phone cable, a crime which she’d cleverly obscured by stacking a half-dozen volumes of our A-Z Encyclopedia set in front of the wall jack.
But I would not be deterred. I plugged that sucker right back in and I chatted my nerd-loving heart out.
CompuServe was my teenage-given right! It was a portal through which I nightly willed myself to disappear forever, lost in endless and sometimes R-rated chat strings with boys named Franc and Sam and Willie.
Then we got Netscape. I was still using dial-up, and would be until college, but Netscape felt like a great, flashy leap forward. I raced into my brave new future and never looked back. Except once, when I returned to those long-abandoned CompuServe chat rooms, and finding no friends left there, got us permanently banned from CompuServe instead when I refused to stop using foul language in a teen chat room.
The SYSOP moderater warned me to quit it, then threatened to disable my chat account.
“I don’t care,” I e-hissed at him/her. “CompuServe SUCKS anyways!”
Now, I’m middle-aged, and slower to anger as well as incredulity.
Now, I carry a telephone-camera-video-wirelessinternet-computer-calculator-CD-GPS-nagivation-system-universal-translator-newspaper-magazine-book around in my back pocket.
No big thing.
Sometimes I think about what a visitor from another planet or dimension or even from the year of my birth, 1981, might say if he could teleport himself into this living room, to this very couch, at this very moment, and sit down with me, just to talk.
Would my theoretical time-traveling buddy not be amazed at the concept of a dial-up modem?
What if I took him to the grocery store down the street and ushered him through a set of doors that whipped open as if by magic, and took him to the bathroom to show him how, if you wave your hand in front of this strange plastic box, endless reams of clean, brown paper towels will issue readily forth? What if I pulled a rectangular-shaped piece of plastic from my pocket and used it to procure for us a shopping cart full of the most fantastic sweets, herbs, spices, teas, fruits and vegetables from the furthest corners of the earth? All perfectly, impossibly fresh and ready to eat?
What if, after we’d feasted, I navigated him back to his abandoned spaceship with a mere half-dozen swipes and taps of my magical-pocket-contraption?
Would all of those things not be miracles?
But, ah, these are philosophical fantasies … They are meant really only, I suppose, to combat some looming touch of post-modern flu, to convince me that I am, indeed, important enough to be from the future; or that I have, by the grace of said technologies, been reshaped into someone smarter and bigger than that 12-year-old version of me who sat typing furiously away in the darkness of our family study some Tuesday night in 1993, draping my body frantically across the monitor every time my mother happened to venture into the room and shrieking, “THIS IS PRIVATE!”
And that’s the problem.
People like to bandy about words such as “Luddite” and “Philistine” when referring to a behavior as atavistic as using a dial-up modem to connect to the Internets.
They are not compliments.
The Luddites were 19th-century textile artisans who fought bravely against the encroachment of industrial machines on the labor force. They were terrified that those cranking, grinding beasts with their many metal hands and fingers would replace them and their wimpy, fleshy allotment 8 fingers and two opposable thumbs once and forever.
It was a fool’s errand, of course, and today, the term “Luddite” refers to someone who refuses to engage with a new technology. The term has, to my ears at least, a sense of snotty inevitability to it.
The Philistines were a Hebraic people of Biblical times, aggressive and warlike and lauded in their own time for innovative weaponry and fantastic brewed beer.
In the Bible, the word “Philistine” devolved into an often-imprecise catchall term used to refer generally to someone who hadn’t had his foreskin snipped off. Today, for some reason I can’t figure out, the term “Philistine” is equated with being dull, materialistic, or smugly ignorant.
What, then, of these terms of art?
The Philistines have been mostly forgotten – they are a footnote more than an actual people at this point, their legacy reduced to a high-minded insult-word law school students fling at each other after a few microbrews.
And the Luddites were right to be afraid. Machines did become men, and we’re still suffering the aftershocks 200 years later.
But if machines can become men, is the reverse also true? Could our technologies be subsuming us, byte by byte?
I wonder, just out of curiosity, if there is anybody up there watching all of this unfold with an equal curiosity? A God or an alien, perhaps, bored with the firmament and craving a little earthly contextualizing?
Which brings me to my theoretical time traveler friend.
If he comes to me from the past, that would, indeed, mean I am from the future, and the philosophical fantasy remains safely intact.
But what if I’ve got it all backwards, pal? What if it was he who came from the future? Would that that doom me – indeed, doom all of us – to live out an already-finished history, engaging with silly technologies that are little more than measly, insignificant lines of code programmed to rewrite themselves, over and over and make us look consistently ridiculous in the process?
Would this relegate us and all our tiny, beeping gadgets, over and over, to a preordained annihilation?
I do worry. But sentience seems to have its own agenda.
In the nook just above the window of the apartment with the dial-up modem, there is a pigeon nest. I can see it when I look out this living room window.
At intervals that seem closely timed to the ringing of the dial-up modem, this pair of pigeons loves to get busy in their little pigeon house.
Loud, noisy bird sex. The feathers-flying kind, punctuated with pleasured coos and the airy fanning of tails.
All of the noise, together, makes me think, again, of that looming and special obsolescence that may or may not await me.
Maybe that is the sound the world will make as at its ending: two flea-bitten birds fucking desperately while somewhere in the backdrop, a telephone rings and rings and rings.
The truth is: technology never promised us anything. It didn’t promise us we would become gods. It didn’t promise us we would not become gods. It promised us only light and noise enough to enhance all our persisting and old-fangled diversions: sex, spectacle, a nagging but sort of wonderful sense of tininess.
So why not enjoy ourselves?
This is the way the world ends, this is the way the world ends.
Not with a ring, but a coo.