Let me tell you a little story. Please indulge me for a minute. This is from a book entitled, Generation X, by Douglas Coupland. You might want to close your eyes and just listen and imagine what the scene looks like since I haven't bothered to do it for you.
The setting is a poolside in a run-down Palm Springs apartment complex where a few twenty-something friends sit and tell stories to each other:
"Let me see your eyes."
Tobias leans over to allow Elvissa to put a hand around his jaw and extract information from his eyes, the blue color of Dutch souvenir plates. She takes an awfully long time. "Well, okay. Maybe you're not all that bad. I might even tell you a special story in a few minutes. Remind me. But it depends. I want you to tell me something first: after you're dead and buried and floating around whatever place we go to, what's going to be your best memory of earth?"
"What do you mean? I don't get it."
"What one moment for you defines what it's like to be alive on this planet. What's your takeaway?"
There is silence. Tobias doesn't get her point, and frankly, neither do I. She continues. "Fake yuppie experiences that you had to spend money on, like white water rafting or elephant rides in Thailand don't count. I want to hear some small moment from your life that proves you're really alive."
Tobias does not readily volunteer any info. I think he needs an example first.
"I've got one," says Claire. All eyes turn to her.
"Snow," she says to us. At the very momenta hailstorm of doves erupts upward from the brown silk soil of the MacArthurs' yard next door...
..."I'll always remember the first time I saw snow. I was twelve and it was just after the first and biggest divorce. I was in New York visiting my mother and was standing beside a traffic island in the middle of Park Avenue. I'ld never been out of L.A. before. I was entranced by the big city. I was looking up at the Pan Am Building and contemplating the essential problem of Manhattan."
"Which is--?" I ask.
"Which is that there's too much weight improperly distributed: towers and elevators; steel, stone, and cement. So much mass up so high that gravity itself could end up being warped--some dreadful inversion--an exchange program with the sky." (I love it when Claire gets weird.) "I was shuddering at the thought of this. But right then my brother Allan yanked at my sleeve because the walk signal light was green. And when I turned my head to walk across, my face went bang, right into my first snowflake ever. It melted in my eye. I didn't even know what it was at first, but then I saw millions of flakes--all white and smelling like ozone, floating downward like the shed skin of angels. Even Allan stopped. Traffic was honking at us, but time stood still. And so, yes--if I take one memory of earth away with me, that moment will be the one. To this day I consider my right eye charmed."
"Perfect," says Elvissa. She turns to Tobias. "Get the drift?"
"Let me think a second."
"I've got one," says Dag with some enthusiasm, partially the result, I suspect, of wanting to score brownie points with Elvissa. "It happened in 1974. In Kingston, Ontario." He lights a cigarette and we wait. "My dad and I were at a gas station and I was given the task of filling up the gas tank--a Galaxy 500, snazzy car. And filling it up was a big responsibility for me. I was one of those goofy kids who always got colds and never got the hang of things like filling up gas tanks or unraveling tangled fishing rods. I'd always screw things up somehow; break something; have it die.
"Anyway, Dad was in the station shop buying a map, and I was outside feeling so manly and just so proud of how I hadn't botched anything up yet--set fire to the gas station or what have you--and the tank was almost full. Well, Dad came out just as I was topping the tank off, at which point the nozzle simply went nuts. It started spraying all over. I don't know why--it just did--all over my jeans, my running shoes, the license plate, the cement--like purple alcohol. Dad saw everything and I thought I was going to catch total shit. I felt so small. But instead he smiled and said to me, 'Hey, Sport. Isn't the smell of gasoline great? Close your eyes and inhale. So clean. It smells like the future.'
"Well, I did that--I closed my eyes just as he asked, and breathed in deeply. And at that point I saw the bright orange light of the sun coming through my eyelids, smelled the gasoline and my knees buckled. But it was the most perfect moment of my life, and so if you ask me (and I have a lot of hopes pinned on this), heaven just has to be an awful lot like those few seconds. That's my memory of earth."
"Was it leaded or unleaded?" asks Tobias.
"Leaded," replies Dag.
Tobias can barely contain himself. His body is poised forward, like a child in a shopping cart waiting to lunge for the presweetened breakast cereals: "I know what my memory is! I know what it is now!"
"Well just tell us then," says Elvissa.
"It's like this--" (God only knows what it will be) "Every summer back in Tacoma Park" (Washington, DC. I knew it was an eastern city) "my dad and I would rig up a shortwave radio that he had leftover from 1950s. We'd string a wire across the yard at sunset and tether it up to the linden tree to act as an antenna. We'd try all of the bands, and if the radiation in the Van Allen belt was low, then we'd pick up just about everywhere: Johannesburg, Radio Moscow, Japan, Punjabi stuff. But more thananything we'd get signals from South America, these weird haunted-sounding bolero-samba transmissions from dinner theaters in Ecador and Caracas and Rio. The music would come in faintly--fainely but clearly.
"One night Mom came out onto the patio in a sundress and carrying a glass pitcher of lemonade. Dad swept her into his arms and they danced to the samba music with Mom still holding the pitcher. She was squealing but loving it. I think she was enjoying that little bit of danger the threat of broken glass added to the dancing. And there were crickets cricking and the transformer humming on the power lines behind the garage and I had my suddenly young parents all to myself--them and this faint music that sounded like heaven--faraway, clear, and impossible to contact--coming from this faceless place that was always summer and where beautiful people were always dancing and where it was impossible to call by telephone, even if you wanted to. Now that's earth to me."
Well, who'd have thought Tobias was capable of such thoughts? We're going to have to do a reevaluation of this lad.
"Andy?" Elvissa looks to me. "You?"
"I know my earth memory. It's a smell--the smell of bacon. It was a Sunday morning at home and we were all having breakfast, an unprecedented occurence since me and all six of my brothers and sisters inherited my mother's tendency to detest the sight of food in the morning. We'd sleep in instead.
"Anyhow, there wasn't even a special reason for the meal. All nine of us simply ended up in the kitchen by accident, with everyone being funny and nice to each other, and reading out the grisly bits from the newspaper. It was sunny; no one was being psycho or mean.
"I remember very clearly standing by the stove and frying a batch of bacon. I knew even then that this was the only such morning our family would be given--a morning where we would all be normal and kind to each other and know that we liked each other without any strings attached--and that soon enough (and we did) we would all become batty and distant the way families invariably do as they get along in years.
"And so I was close to tears, listening to everyone make jokes and feeding the dog bits of egg; I was feeling homesick for the event while is was happening. All the while my forearms were getting splattered by little pinpricks of hot bacon grease, but I wouldn't yell. To me, those pinpricks were no more or less pleasurable that the pinches my sisters used to give me to extract from me the truth about which one I loved the most--and it's those little pinpricks and the smell of bacon that I'm going to be taking away with me; that will be my memory of earth."
So, take a moment and think about your takeaway. What is it so far? Perhaps you don't have one yet, but you probably have an idea as to what it might be someday. Think about what is important to you in your life. What you will remember, what makes your life worth living. This is what interactivity is all about. How many of your takeaways--your memories--involved a CD-ROM? A website? "interactive media" of any kind? Television? Radio? Anything technological? I thought not.
Now, I don't know if I expect anybody's special memory to really be the result of technology--at least not yet-- but this is where we should be focusing our expectations and our energies. Interactive media so far just isn't--mostly because our expectations are so dismally low about what we think people will do with them, or how they should be affected by it--that we've yet to create anything that is either that interactive or that important. But, to paraphrase AT&T's high-concept advertising in the USA, You Will.
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