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Technology Speaks

By Annalee Newitz

I RECENTLY LEARNED that one of the peculiar side effects of consumer tech is time travel. (No, this isn't yet another column about Dr. Who.)

Last week I went back down to my hometown of Irvine, Calif., to help my parents do some packing for their impending and long-awaited move to a beautiful stretch of pot-grower country in Northern California. They were vacating the house where I'd grown up, and as a result there was quite a bit of debris from my formative years that I needed to sift through: obscene notes I'd passed in high school, old Ozzy Osbourne and AC/DC pins (kept those!), pictures of a boy I dated in ninth grade, stickers, random journal entries, letters, poems. Buried in a drawer full of thumbtacks and Sanrio stationery I also found a cassette tape. It was labeled obscurely, in my bubbly adolescent handwriting, "This Side" and "Other Side."

When I was in junior high and high school, the Walkman was a hip new thing. Suddenly all my suburban friends and I had these little tape player/ recorders, and making a tape of anything was much easier than it had been even a few years before in the late 1970s. This happy advance in consumer electronics meant that my friends and I acquired this habit of passing tapes around instead of sending letters or notes. The tape I had discovered, I realized in wonderment, was one such letter, perfectly preserved for almost 20 years.

But I had no idea what the tape contained, so I threw it in a bag with a bunch of other stuff and resolved to listen to it the next day. I figured it would make for good distraction while Charles and I were doing the grueling seven-hour drive back to San Francisco.

We were speeding on the scalding-hot I-5 when Charles started to play the tape. A strange voice filled the car, whose soprano register I couldn't place for a moment. Then I realized it was Paul, my best friend from junior high and high school, speaking to me in the voice he had as a 12-year-old. "I can't believe the ditto we got in Mrs. Mills' class today," he said incredulously. He was cracking a joke about our seventh grade social studies teacher, known for her non-sequiturial handouts.

I haven't heard from Paul in years--last I knew, he was working at a radio station in Santa Cruz. "You're going to be listening to this tomorrow," his 12-year-old self intoned in a silly Rod Serling voice, "which is actually your today, and my today is your yesterday. In other words, your today is my tomorrow. That means you'll be listening to my yesterday today."

But today was 20 years later, and hearing Paul's unchanged voice after all that time was overwhelmingly sad. It was much more gut-wrenching than finding all the notes he'd written me when we were 16 or looking at the pictures I still have of him in my box of memorabilia. Technology had brought his long-dead boyhood inflections back to life, and with them a visceral sense of our everyday existence back in the simple times before our relationship headed for the inevitable post-pubescent complications, sexual orientation crises and ultimate disintegration.

Paul's lively, smart, sweet patter filled the car for half an hour, during which I was in a kind of temporal shock. He kept starting to end the tape, but then he'd remember some other joke he wanted to tell me or another question I'd asked him in our musical theater class that he wanted to answer. "As you can tell," he mumbled sheepishly, "I'm finding it hard to say good-bye." Then the tape ended. After a brief trip through time, the Paul I loved when I was young was gone again.

The "Other Side" was empty. I guess I never returned the note or I started a new tape.

The whole thing was yet another demonstration that technology is hardly the opposite of so-called humanity. Technology is a human force that serves a variety of needs, including the urge to remember beautiful things about the past. We forget this all the time. Pundits rail against Internet obscenity; corporations use high-tech devices to monopolize the market; progressive Luddites talk about how electronic media are rotting kids' brains. But high tech is what you make of it. A circuit board, machine or data device is as subject to sentimentality and emotional attachments as any other part of the human world.

Annalee Newitz ([email protected]) is a surly media nerd who wonders if Paul still remembers her.

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From the June 28-July 4, 2001 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2001 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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