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Naturalization Class #1: From Manual to Digital
The four stages of revolutionary ideas1) 'it's nonsense, don't waste my time'2) 'it's interesting, but not important'3) 'I always said it was a good idea'4) 'I thought of it first'
science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke
Immigrants are products of a Manual Age, a world of radio, TV, typewriter, film. Natives are products of a Digital Age, a world of computers, fax machines, cell phones, and
Today's brag factor is not the biggest wooden box, but the biggest bandwidth.
I grew up with a screen pet of Lassie.
Natives grew up with R2D2 and digital friends like 'Pokemon,' pocket monsters that pop out of oval computers.
The sexiest women on TV when I was growing up? Mary Tyler Moore. The sexiest women on TV today? A borg (Star Trek Voyager, 1995) or an alien (3rd Rock from the Sun, 1997).
When I grew up, kids blew up things in microwaves--at a time when microwaves were the size of an oven and sold for $1000 (GE sold the first microwave in 1956).
Natives blow up things on screens operated by play stations so powerful they can be used in military engagements to actually deploy missiles.
I grew up in a brick-and-mortar world of rotary dials, seven-inch reel tape recorders, teletype machines, and long-distance phone calls. It took a while, but the Museum of Modern Art finally admitted film into the realm of art. I think in terms of 'switches' that turn on and off. How several million switches can function in a microprocessor the size of a fingernail is beyond my imagining.
Natives inhabit a point-and-click world where satellites are now routinely launched every week. My daring on the typewriter was to leave the letters and go explore the numbers. Natives camp out on the keyboard where only the cartoon character Bazooka Joe dared go: !@#$%^&*~/.
For natives it's not the book but the screen that comes trailing clouds of glory.
As Seen on TV
I was in the midst of an address to a youth convention, and it wasn't going well. Even when I moved to a more karaoke style of presentation and walked the audience while engaging them in dialogue, my feet felt like they were slogging through a quagmire. Just when the sacrament-of-failure stage started kicking in and I begin shuffling my feet ('When they fail to receive you, shake the dust off your feet,' Jesus said, 'and move on'), an orange-haired questioner chimed in: 'Don't you have this on video?'
'Yes, I do. How did you know?... Would you like to see it?' A giant sigh of relief rose from the congregation, and I headed for my virtual office (a brain bag and book bag goes with me wherever I go). As I unzipped the leather case to pull out the video, I thought to myself--'But you have me! Why do you want a video when you have me?'--but I gave the video to the technician at the mixing table, sat down, and for the next ten minutes watched myself on screen.
When the lights went on and I stood back up, I faced an entirely different audience. The energy of the place was electrifying. 'Surf's up!' I said to myself as I breathed deeply and dived in. For the next thirty minutes I surfed their spirit, surfed God's Spirit, and the waves of excitement and engagement gushed out of that room like the breaking of a big kahuna.
What happened? What made the difference? I had been legitimated by the screen. This group of natives had only known me as an author. For immigrant book culture, this was all the credentialing one needed. For natives, many of whom have graphicacy skills before they have literacy skills, the screen is what credentializes you. If they don't see you on a screen first, they don't listen to you. That phrase 'As Seen on TV' is more than a tag found on advertisements, or a chain store found in malls.
Ubiquitous screens are shaping natives and immigrants alike in ways we have yet to understand. One study reveals that 88% of USAmerican households now claim at least two televisions. The same study also shows that 'the average American kid lives in a household with three televisions, two VCRs, three radios, two tape players, two CD players, a video game player, and a computer.'1 Unaccounted for but equal in importance is the remote control, which alters television from a passive consumption of what someone else is dishing out to a participant sport. Remote controls enable all of us to create our own TV programming. We design and improvise our own shows, turning the television experience from something highly representative to something highly participatory--a participation that the Internet takes even further.
Novelist Bruce Sterling, in his preface to the anthology Mirrorshades (1986), noted how technology has changed from 'the giant steam-snorting wonders of the past: the Hoover Dam, the Empire State Building, the nuclear power plant' to a technology that 'sticks to the skin, responds to the touch: the personal computer, the Sony Walkman, the portable telephone, the soft contact lens.'2 Soon to be on the market is the techno-bra. It's a bra that uses miniature electronics and conductive fabric to monitor the wearer's heart rate. With a sudden change in pulse, it radios a distress call to police and identifies the bra's location. In case it's a good change in pulse, there's a cancel button on the front clasp.
But the screen is in many ways only a membrane to a whole new future filled with holodecks, cyborgs, and who knows what else. Hard as it is to imagine, some people did live before the elaboration of chemistry's periodic tables. Hard as it will be for our descendants to imagine, we immigrants lived before the elaboration of biology's periodic tables--the human genetic code. The Human Genome Project is the equivalent of the development of the periodic tables for chemistry. But this project is still based on immigrant understanding of the human body as a machine that can be deciphered by taking it apart and reducing it to its most basic level.
Biotechnology, the most important science of the next hundred years, puts us at a threshold for the genetic design of everything. We will be able to breed people for excellence in certain areas: enhanced athletic ability, musical ability, dance ability. We will have the capability of reinventing nature and ourselves.