CONNECTING PEOPLE TO IDEAS AND TO EACH OTHER
CONNECTING PEOPLE TO IDEAS AND TO EACH OTHER
Essay

The Miracle Of Everything Anywhere Anytime

Let’s Stop Moping For a Moment to Remember What Infoscarcity Felt Like

I must have been 12 or 13 when my father suggested I go downtown with him to get some money from the bank. It was a Saturday afternoon, and, although he was a senior executive at the “Multibanco” in Chihuahua, I doubted he was going to be admitted on the weekend to help himself to some pesos. So I kept watching soccer on TV. My team, Atlético Español, was finding a new way to lose; that’s what they did.

But no, Dad was clearly up to something. “C’mon, I have a card that will get me cash,” he said, grinning. He did have a sense of humor and an adventurous streak, so I figured I should play along.

“OK,” I said. “Vamos.”

We got into our un-air-conditioned orange VW Caribe—I miss that stick-shift car, even the feel of its baking plastic on those hot northern Mexican days—and headed downtown. The Multibanco was right across the street from the zócalo, in the shadows of Chihuahua’s 18th-century cathedral, the first and last baroque structure built in our otherwise unpretentious city.

Outside the bank, by the parking lot, was a small kiosk I had never noticed before, like a walk-in phone booth. We walked over to it, and my dad fumbled for a card that he reverentially slid out from a little envelope and into an opening that caused a buzz and click, and in we went to the booth, where he proceeded, before his wide-eyed, jaw-dragging son, to retrieve a few hundred pesos from a machine. I don’t think I could have been more astonished had he beamed us into the 23rd century.

Three decades later, I type down this memory on a plane as I listen to one of a few hundred albums on my iPad before settling in to read one of the dozens of books on the same nimble tablet with the interactive screen.

We live in an age when we can have nearly anything all the time, and my first inkling of that coming age came that languid Saturday afternoon in Chihuahua, when Dad pulled his act of magic at the city’s first ATM.

There were other milestones along the way, of course. The Walkman seemed like a huge leap forward, providing stereophonic mobility. So did having an AT&T long-distance calling card. When I first came to school in the States I had to drag rolls and rolls of change to the payphone down the hallway to connect for a few minutes with Mexico to speak to my parents or to enjoy some awkward, static-filled small talk with a certain Margarita. Then came these calling cards that let you commandeer any payphone as if it were your own, without the need to have a piggy bank in tow (although those monthly bills were an invariable shocker).

Oddly enough, what should have been more obvious milestones on the road to “everything all the time” didn’t seem like such. My first desktop computer in college felt more like a spiffier typewriter than a potential conduit to all the world’s information, but then it wouldn’t be another decade until I “dialed” online after getting one of those AOL CDs in the mail (it was probably the 10th one I’d gotten). And even that didn’t feel so noteworthy, truth be told; I quickly grew bored of a couple of chat rooms and went back to the TV.

Amazon did feel epochal, this notion that you could be sitting in your PJs at midnight and order a book from your bedroom that would show up a few days later at your doorstep. The memory of those first orders in the late ’90s still gives me chills, even now when I can download two entire books onto my iPad in the time it takes to board a plane, as I just did.

Let’s get back to TV for a second. That’s been an entertainment constant throughout my life, but precisely because it has been a constant—at least the physical act of staring at a screen—it’s also the starkest illustration of how we’ve moved from a life of fleeting moments to this everything-all-the-time age.

My family’s first video recorder, a Betamax, ranks high on the list of milestones: to think that you could capture something forever. I’ve kept holding on to a stack of tapes of 1978 World Cup matches—presided over by those creepy Argentine junta generals and enlivened by the free-flowing, hippie-looking Dutch squad—perhaps to prove to myself that the miracle did happen. (Too bad I no longer have a machine on which to play them.) And we had movies, too, that first year we had our Betamax. Two, to be precise: Tora! Tora! Tora! and Von Ryan’s Express. Not exactly the two films most people would put on their deserted-island-essentials list, but we were still amazed we could start movies whenever.

I left Chihuahua for school in 1981, just as satellite TVs were starting to make their appearance. Had I been 10 years younger, my Mexican childhood would have been decidedly less Mexican; I would have grown up watching The Brady Bunch and U.S. newscasts instead of 24 Horas. Chihuahua was (and is) a four-hour drive south of the border, but in terms of access to American television we might as well have been living in Burkina Faso. We got four channels growing up: 2, 5, 8, and the government-run 13. Our biggest thrill each week—unfathomable as this might be in our age of wall-to-wall SportsCenters on ESPN—was the hour-long sports highlight show on Sunday nights.

Until I was seven, we’d lived in Mexico City, where my dad worked for Channel 8, a perennial ratings laggard. One of the channel’s trademarks, making virtue of its dearth of solid programming, was Sunday’s “Permanencia Voluntaria,” which consisted of one featured movie—shown again and again, all day. In retrospect, the odd name for this gimmick, “voluntary permanence,” is a nod to the universal yearning propelling us on this voyage toward all things all the time—the quest for permanence.

We now transcend time and place. I may not have benefited from satellites in Chihuahua, but DirecTV now allows me to watch any football game on any Sunday, no longer condemned to the local market’s choice. And YouTube, Hulu, Netflix, Amazon, and all the rest of it make all TV and films from all time accessible all the time. If I wonder what the Downton Abbey hype is all about, I can start sating my curiosity in a minute. Even my dentist offers a menu of DVDs to pass the dental hygiene time away. You can program your life as you please, even if it means being consumed by a drama that consumed much of the country a few years ago when first released. Everything is captured, nothing fleeting.

My dad’s birthday was last Thursday, which I didn’t remember until midafternoon. The ensuing guilt triggered these memories. He’s been dead eight years now; leukemia cheated him out of Twitter and Facebook, although he clung on with a prolonged, stubborn fight. At my father’s funeral, one of his much younger colleagues told me that one of the things he most appreciated about working alongside Dad was his youthful penchant for saying “Wow” at new discoveries, new breakthroughs; little things.

Why isn’t this wonder at all that surrounds us more pervasive? Too often we whine as if things are getting worse all the time, even if we are whining on some handheld device bouncing our complaints off a satellite in outer space—or conveying this sentiment onscreen to another friend visible onscreen halfway around the world in a conversation that’s essentially cost-free. As my old boss Gail Collins would say: People!

I often wish I could go back to the mid-’70s for a day just to count the entertainment options, to experience what sheer boredom, or at least infoscarcity, felt like. How would I have reacted if Dad had told me en route to my first ATM that as an adult I’d be able to carry hundreds of books on a light screen, or that I would carry around a phone with live maps (“because phones will be like small TVs, son”), a phone that would also be able to instantly show me photos taken by friends back in Chihuahua? Or that the day would come when I would be able to type in any query to a machine, for free, and summon up unfathomable amounts of relevant information? Imagine if we’d been able to Google the future then, or simply been able to imagine Google.

No jetpacks, alas, but if someone had offered you this everything-all-the-time power back then, it would have felt like being offered the power to fly. And yet here we are, hardly feeling like we conquered the universe, rarely taking a moment to marvel the way my dad did.

Is it simply because of the constant struggle to keep up? Or have we become so immune to progress, we’ve lost all sense of wonder?

That’s too big a question for my 30,000-foot ruminations, especially as we’ll soon be asked to power down our electronic devices. But, as a belated birthday present to Dad, I for one vow to find more moments in which to appreciate the remarkable age in which we live. Or, to put it as Dad would have: Wow.