When I walked into the room where the computer sits, my son quickly hushed me with a finger to his lips. His eyes, trained on the monitor, told me that I was about to witness something momentous. He pointed to the lower right-hand corner of the screen. In a tiny box was the word “listening.”
My son then folded his arms across his chest and spoke in the authoritarian tone he uses when the dog misbehaves: “Connect to the Internet,” he said.
A dialogue box appeared, repeating the command in print and asking for permission to proceed.
“Do it,” my son said, and then sat back as a satisfied grin spread across his face. Magically, the computer dialed the number and the modem screeched, launching my teen-ager into cyberspace.
“Voice activation,” he said proudly. “I got it off the Web. Pretty cool, huh?”
I had to agree that it was, although I wasn’t exactly sure why. Had the simple task of clicking a mouse button suddenly become outdated while I was at work? Had I missed out on the latest bonding ritual between man and machine? Was it really necessary for me now to talk to my computer as if it were alive?
In the two years since we’ve owned this computer, the third in our family, I have become increasingly uncertain of what I will experience when I wake the machine from its slumber. As my son’s computer skills have increased, so has his maddening need to explore the machine’s “awesome” potential and manipulate it to his whims.
The screen’s appearance changes daily, and I greet it with the anticipation of a theatergoer at a curtain-raising. One night I can switch it on to find a race car tearing across the screen to heavy-metal music. The next night I’m confronted with a spooky-looking baby in a diaper, gyrating to the Macarena.
Programs now close with the sound of a toilet flushing, and new ones open to the roar of a freight train or the shattering of glass. I’ve become accustomed to late-afternoon phone calls from home alerting me to some computer crisis or another: “Dad, don’t freak out but I think we’ve got a virus.”
A trip to the local Staples store is not just an errand, it’s an adventure. Roaming that high-tech wonderland, my son and his pals gush over the hottest new computers the way they used to lust after the latest Nike sneakers. Their chat is laced with cryptic references to MMX, SynchDRAM, EDO RAM, DVD-ROM, and the merits of the Pentium processor vs. the AMD-K6.
After being a computer owner for about 10 years, I am forced to admit that I am becoming techno-saturated, worn out by the relentless pace of innovation. The wow factor is dimming. In the race to get my family on the information highway, I ran the first leg. My son has since grabbed the baton, and I’m happy to take a breather as he speeds away.
Yet as I sat at a library computer the other day, next to a middle-aged couple who were staring blankly at a screen, I realized that other parents have yet to approach the starting line. The man told me he was preparing to buy his first computer. The family could use one, he said, especially their 12-year-old son.
When the man asked me about getting onto the Internet, I pointed to a button on the screen and told him to click it with his mouse. The man looked befuddled. He stared at the mouse for a second, then picked it up off the pad and began waving it tentatively in front of the screen.
“Have you ever thought of taking a night course?” I asked.