Sunday, May 16, 2010


By Lisabet Sarai

When I turned eleven, I got a really special birthday present, something that I had wanted for months: a transistor radio. It was a box of orange plastic about the size of two cigarette packs, with circular grating over the speaker, a thumb wheel for selecting channels, a faux-leather carrying case and a silvery retracting antenna. I thought that it was the coolest thing I'd ever seen. It had seven transistors!—cutting edge technology for the period. I used that radio to listen to the Beatles, who were just rising into public view. Sometimes, though, I would just sit it on my desk while I was doing my homework and look at it. I couldn't believe it was mine.

That was the last time I fell in love with a piece of technology. As I matured, my studies and my career involved me with various high-tech mechanisms: tachistoscopes and gas chromatographs and of course, all sorts of computers. It was easy for me to see that these machines caused as many problems as they solved. I didn't hate technology, and I certainly didn't avoid it, but I was wary. Technology had a nasty tendency to fail just when you needed it most.

My first laptop was a used IBM Thinkpad with eighty megabytes of disk space and 256K of RAM. I used that computer to write Raw Silk. I liked the Thinkpad (which I christened “Descartes”) quite a lot; it was simple, reliable, and had a great keyboard, making it easy and comfortable to type. It weighed a ton and didn't stay up long if it was unplugged, but that was okay. Mostly I didn't need to be mobile. And for my writing, I certainly didn't need something state-of-the-art. Still, when it finally started to die, I replaced it without a pang.

Today, I have a range of gadgets: a basic cellphone, a no-name MP3 player, a digital camera, a netbook that I use for travel and reading ebooks, a hand-held GPS receiver for those trips off the beaten track that so amuse my husband. I don't have 3G. I don't do mobile email or video or chat or photosharing or anything else of that sort. I choose my technology on the basis of function and cost, not fashion or hype. I'm amazed and a bit appalled by the way some people's self-perceptions are determined by the tech stuff that they carry. It's a bit scary. If one of these kids had to choose between saving the life of his best friend or his iPhone, what would he decide?

Then there's the Internet. When the Internet started to become popular, I didn't trust it. I swore that I'd never become dependent on it. I continued to hand-write personal letters to friends and family. I rejected the notion of Internet banking as risky and unnecessary. I used to shop from printed catalogs, filling in the the order forms longhand and sending them by post. I didn't want to find myself in the situation of where I couldn't live without an Internet connection, because I knew how fragile the hardware and software infrastructure really were.

Seven years ago, however, I moved overseas and everything changed. I'm dismayed to realize that at this point, living without the 'Net for an extended period would be completely impractical. I pay my bills using the 'Net. I keep in touch with friends. I follow the news. I send e-cards and order gifts for my remote family. My writing career would be dead in the water if I couldn't search for submission opportunities, communicate with my editors, do research, and promote my work using websites, blogs and email lists. The Internet has become as critical for me as electricity.

I'm not happy about this. Generally the network here is moderately fast and reliable, but every so often we lose connectivity for a few hours or even a few days. By the time it comes back, I'm like an addict; I'll drop everything else to jump online and check my email. Last year some undersea cables that form the backbone of the Asia/United States network were severed by an earthquake, creating an outage of several days. I was completely frantic until service was restored.

Clearly I had it right, back when I was determined to remain independent. But what can you do when you live half a world (and a twelve hour time difference) away from the people you need to connect with?

I can deal with new technology. I can even appreciate the incredible advances in capabilities that have become available in a matter of just a few years. But for me, technology is just a tool. Gadgets will not make me beautiful, sexy or rich. I remind myself of that whenever I feel a slight twinge of lust for something new, shiny and battery-powered.

When my brother and I were young kids, we used to make these things we called, for some obscure reason, “time limits”, out of paper, cardboard, bottle caps, ice cream sticks, or whatever other materials came to hand. A time-limit started out as a watch. But then we'd augment it, รก la Dick Tracy, adding (fake) functionality: a radio, a television, an intercom, a camera, even a phonograph. (I remember cutting little circles out of paper and labeling them with the names of the classical records my dad used to play.) We found these all-in-one portable gadgets incredibly exciting. The notion of being able to watch television or listen to music anywhere really intrigued us.

I was reminiscing recently with my brother and pointed out that these days, cell phones and PDAs were basically the equivalent of our time-limits. As my grandmother used to say, what is the world coming to?

I've been thinking, though. You know what would be really cool? To have a PDA that looked like my cherished transistor radio.

Now that would turn some heads!


  1. [smile]

    I recall my treasured first transistor radio too. I loved that babyshit brown thing (Yes that was its color.)

    Though I make my living programming computers, I move slowly into new inventions. My son calls me an analog man in the digital age. It was years until I had a cell phone, and it is basically the Ford Model A of cell phones (I start it with a little crank on the front.) I don't have a PDA or any of that other good stuff.

    But I have my desktop computer and I'm so glad to have the internet for research and to meet with like minded lovers of writing and art and music that I wouldn't otherwise have ever met in my town. I hate it when the internet is down.

    It's a love/hate relationship, that's for sure, but I might break down and by a babyshit-brown-transistor-PDA...

  2. I relate to a whole lot of this (I seem to have said that to you numerous times lately). I sometimes have felt rather "behind" in terms of technology, as there is a lot with which I am not familiar or that I simply have no interest in owning. I have a laptop, a cell phone, and an iPod, all of which, as you alluded to, I have because I prefer to have access to the functions they perform. The appeal or urge to spend money on something technological because it's new or seems somehow abstractly appealing to the masses has thus far escaped me.

    Regarding the Internet, however, I really relate to what you said here. I have found myself feeling uneasy at being without Internet access for as little as a few hours, and I have felt rather nonplussed by this feeling. But as you said, I have appreciated a lot of what I tend to do online. I am interested, though, in that feeling of urgency I have felt when deprived of Internet access for periods of time (be it hours or days) and what its implications may be, as well as in centeredness and balance in me in that context.

    All best to you with your current medical proceedings, Lisabet. Healing, health, and support to you.

  3. Lisabet,

    The transistor radio looks exceptionally cool. As a retro-gadget (with all the modern functionality) I can imagine it would sell in droves.



  4. Hello all,

    Craig--somehow I'm not surprised that you, like I, work in the computer field. Computers and other electronic gadgets have very little glamor when you know how stupid and recalcitrant they can be.

    Emerald--Thank you for dropping by and sharing. I wouldn't say that I'm exactly addicted to the Internet, but as the Buddha said, attachment is the source of all suffering.

    Ash--I actually think that there's a business idea there. But I'm awful at making money!


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