Thursday, October 6, 2011

iLove

If you've ever waited for a dial-up modem to connect, you understand anticipation.

When I was 12, my father declared one day that "we need to get Roxanne on the internet." In Greece at the time, that involved a lot of clunkiness: A computer monitor the size of a coffee table, a noisy and tortuously slow dial-up connection, WordPad documents. Neither my mother nor I quite understood what I was meant to do with a computer and "the internet", so I spent a lot of time becoming very, very good at minesweeper and browsing Encarta, the online MSN encyclopedia. There was an Encarta game in which I excelled: figuring out which of the multiple choices that showed up on my screen was not a dog name. I was 12, English was my second language, I did not understand the colloquial expression "to chill", but I knew dog breeds.

I got my first email account to keep in touch with my friends from camp. Inna signed me up for Hotmail. We ended our every email with two emoticons of girls wearing the same pink dress.The icons may have looked a little like bathroom signs, but it was our way of indicating we were still there for one another, even from afar. 

That Hotmail account still houses the emails from my first love. He had asked for my debate partner's email address so they could keep in touch at the end of an international debating competition and I scribbled mine on the same napkin because I was a bolder teenager then than young adult now. He lived on the other side of the world from Greece and we wrote each other nearly every night, so that we would both have something to wake up to in the morning or come home to after school. It feels like the dial-up is taking extra long to connect, just to annoy you, when you are a 16-year-old in love.

When I got admitted to Harvard, I received a welcome packet that included cookie dough and a Harvard cookie cutter to make H-shaped cookies. More usefully, the welcome packet suggested that students would really benefit from the use of a laptop. I arrived in Cambridge, MA by myself, with two suitcases, and a laptop that weighed nearly as much as I did.

I did not have a bag big enough to carry that first laptop to class, so I took notes by hand, a habit I maintained even after being clued in to the Apple revolution. That freshman spring, white laptops with apples on the cover populated Harvard classrooms. There was even a promotional offer: buy one with a student discount and get one of those first early iPods for free. The little white iBook, my silver iPod and I went to class every day. I started using Mac Mail and raving about iCal. I became one of those iPeople. Because a romantic still lived inside me, I did not delete the Hotmail account. When I felt bold, I still sent an email or two from it.

My other-side-of-the-world friend turned into a full-fledged Apple aficionado that year. He kept a sparse, sharply-designed blog, white as an iBook in the era before they released the black ones. Every time Steve Jobs made a public statement, he would quote from it and comment "Amazing." A new product is released? "Genius." He would queue up for the new products like people do outside stores on Thanksgiving to buy a microwave on sale, but there was something more mystical and devotional about the Apple products than there ever will be about microwaves. A lot made my friend dream, and Steve Jobs was certainly one of the factors that had that effect on him.

He was my first friend to own an iPhone. I used to dislike receiving emails from it. "Sent from my iPhone" to me felt like code for "I am not making writing to you a mindful and thoughtful practice." It felt quick and easy. It felt like something you could multi-task, in the way those Hotmail emails did not. I was too hip to lament that technology eroded romance, but I was too romantic for "Sent from my iPhone" emails.

In the years that passed, the romance faded, the iPhone emails won, and I got asked out on a date by one of the technicians at the Apple store whose job was to resuscitate my laptop. I always found it a little curious, a touch arrogant, that they called the repair shop a "genius bar", but I was thankful for the genius at work. I graduated from college, graduated to a silver Mac, graduated to life outside America. In Egypt, my colleagues would ask me about my laptop and I'd say, as though I knew what that really meant, that "it was cut from one brick of aluminum."

Mac Mail open in the background of one of my workshops in Colombia
Many of the aid workers had Mac laptops, but I somehow felt self-conscious about it, the same way I felt uncomfortable listening to my iPod in a too-crowded and not-safe-enough bus in East Africa. It felt incongruous in a conflict zone. In Northern Uganda, the keyboard turned bright red from the dust. In Colombia, one of the women participating in the post-conflict reintegration initiative I was leading cautioned her son not to break my laptop: "It's expensive. It has a fruit on the cover!" The computer with the fruit on the cover died during Hurricane Agatha in Guatemala when water rushed into my bedroom from the roof. Ironically, the only thing insurance did not cover was... water damage. Many people died in that hurricane, some of them in horrific mudslides, so it felt inappropriate to mourn a laptop.

Another computer in the mud in Guatemala after Hurricane Agatha
Last week, the NYT published a much-criticized piece titled "You Love Your iPhone, Literally." The article cited neuroimaging research that suggested the relationship between people and their iDevices resembled the chemical reactions of a brain in love. I facetiously forwarded the link to my friend on the other side of the world. He commented that he was concerned at the number of people who forwarded the same link to him, and made an astute remark: Your cortex is not responding to your iPhone or Nokia or device -- it is responding to the email you get, the communication with someone or something you care about.

Steve Jobs did not invent the internet. He did not create email. But he imagined technology in a way that was beautiful. He made technology that could inspire dreams. He inspired the kind of following that would have men on the other side of the world proclaim "genius" and "amazing" at his every statement and creation. He created the kind of technology that can inspire love. 

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