Magic. That’s what is was, electronic magic. The device I held in my hands seemed impossible. A quarter inch thick, if that, and an eight-inch touchscreen with incredible image quality. A far cry from the first computer I worked with, a system with a couple dozen refrigerator-sized components. Sure, I had seen the evolution from those huge monsters to desktops, laptops, then tablets, phones and watches; but the technology packed into these tiny devices, thousands of times more powerful than those room-filling mainframes, still made my head spin.
And everyone today simply takes this magic for granted.
My twelve-year old grandson took his tablet computer back, “Look, grandpa!” He swiped the screen and proudly showed me his personal home page on the Friends and Family network, the insanely popular new social media website where people could connect, share pictures, bad jokes and fake news, operated by Roydon Technologies. It had taken so many members away from the other social media services in the past couple of months that they were all in danger of shutting down. There was a post with a photo of the two of us standing in the front yard that had been taken earlier that day. Not the most flattering picture of me. Digital cameras always made me look fat.
“Ugh, how many friends do you have on here?”
“A hundred and fifty.”
I scowled. “You know a hundred and fifty other kids?”
“No, Grandpa. Most of them I never met in person. But we're connected on Friends and Fam! See, he’s from Ohio, he’s from California, and she’s from Korea! Ain’t that cool?”
Oh, Lord, I thought. Which one of those “kids” is really some adult scumbag posing as a child; the next John Wayne Gacey? And I still couldn’t see how this social media site was any different from the others. “You know you should be careful what you put on there.”
“I'll bet. Let me know before you put my picture up for the whole world to see next time.”
“It's not the whole world, just a hundred and fifty kids. Why don’t you have an account, Grandpa? You work for them, don’t you?”
“Not for long,” I said. No way am I putting all my personal information out there. I never signed on to any other data-grabbing social media website before, and I wasn’t going to start with this one. I took the tablet from him and looked closely at an ad on the side. A special on a popular brand of dental adhesive. I could get a ten-pack for a really good price. Wait, why would an ad like this show up on a twelve-year-old's page? And it just happens to be my favorite brand. Probably because he used my full name in the text. But of all the Matthew Williamses there must be in the world, how did it know that was me? Did it recognize my face from the photo? He did refer to me as his grandpa, did it make that connection? Maybe it was just a weird coincidence. It was still more than a little unnerving. Darnell took the tablet back and started poking and swiping the screen again.
“You ever see this, Grandpa?”
“What’s that?” I squinted as I looked at the bright screen on the impossibly thin device.
“It’s a new game that just came out. It’s called Lucky Nurdheads. Really cool.”
Fifty-plus years of advancement in computer technology and for what? So kids can play a stupid time-wasting game called Lucky Nurdheads. And if that wasn’t bad enough, someone didn’t even know how to spell “nerd.” Whatever happened to real computer games, like Space Invaders?
“You start the game,” he described the action on the screen as if I was too blind to see and too dumb to comprehend, “and these little nurdheads appear randomly on the screen.”
“Little rectangular smiley faces. They look familiar. And they're not random.”
“They’re nurdheads, Grandpa. And they do come on the screen randomly,” Darnell corrected.
“Forgive me,” I chuckled. He was actually a pretty smart kid. Just like his dad.
“Now, after a bunch of them appear on the screen, your diamond ship appears. It has a blaster that fires from all four points, but it can only shoot a nurdhead that’s right next to it, so you have to move it right up next to them,” he touched the diamond shape and dragged it over next to a smiley face, tapped it, and a tiny beam flashed that erased the nurdhead and awarded him some points.
“A little like Pac Man,” I muttered. “At least we had the decency to use a joystick.”
“A white nurdhead is worth fifty points. A blue nurdhead is worth a hundred points. And a nuclear nurdhead, a red one, is worth five hundred points, but if you don’t get it in time it’ll blow everything up and that’s the end of the game.”
“Wait a minute. I thought I recognized these things. What you call nurdheads. They’re just old ASCII characters that IBM used back in the 80’s. The little smiley face thing was either a “start of header” or “start of line,” code or something like that. And the diamond was an “end of transmission” character. And they are not random. As a matter of fact, I think I saw a pattern.”
Darnell tapped the screen and paused the game. “You’re random, Grandpa,” he looked at me like I was a third grader who had just failed a second grade spelling test.
“What happened to all the games with the realistic graphics?”
“Mom and Dad won’t let me play those. Too violent.”
“My favorite video game was Donkey Kong,” I said, wistfully.
“Donkey Kong?” Darnell laughed.
“Yeah. This gorilla would kidnap this girl and take her to the top of this thing with a bunch of girders and ladders. Your Mario character had to try to climb up and save her while the gorilla throws barrels down on him.”
“What did the donkey do?”
“What donkey? There’s no donkey.”
“Then why was it called Donkey Kong?” Darnell said.
I shook my head. “Made more sense than that ‘Lucky Nurdheads’ app.”
“You’ll never understand this game.”
I’ll never understand the game? I chuckled to myself. He didn’t even know what ASCII was. “So how much did this stupid nurdheads game cost you?”
“Lucky Nurdheads. It was free. I just downloaded it.”
Nothing’s free, I thought. I'm sure he never read the list of things he gave the app permission to access on his device before installing. And there were no ads. It was probably downloading the entire family's genealogy and bank balances while we were sitting there.
“Darnell! Bed time!”
“Ok, Mom!” he shouted back to the voice that came from upstairs. He set the still glowing tablet on the desk and looked around as if he had misplaced something.
“Vici!” Darnell said.
“Who the hell is Vic—” Before I could get my words out, I got my answer.
The smooth, sweet female voice came from a little blue box that sat on the bed stand. It was about three inches square with a thin line of blue light around the middle that pulsated as it spoke.
“Where is my phone, Vici?”
After a few seconds, the thing responded. “Your phone is in your room on your bed.”
“Ok, Thanks, Vici!”
“You’re welcome, Darnell!”
“What was that all about?” I said, picking up the blue box that was connected to a power cube plugged in the wall. There were no markings on it. I turned it over and saw the label on the bottom:
Voice-controlled Interactive Command Interface
Roydon Technologies, Inc.
Made in China
“You never heard of Vici?” Darnell said, pronouncing it like “Vicki.” “It’s made by the people you work for!”
“Right. What does it do?” It was hard to keep up with all the stuff Roydon was selling.
“Everything!” Darnell grinned.
“Seems a little creepy to me.”
“We just got it this week. You can ask it things and tell it to do things. Who’s your favorite singer, Grandpa?”
“I don’t know. Nat King Cole?”
“Who?” Darnell laughed. “Ask Vici to play a song by him.”
“Vici?” I said.
“Yes, who is speaking?”
“That’s my Grandpa,” Darnel said, “He wants you to play a song.”
“What would you like to hear, My Grandpa?”
I didn’t like it calling me that. “Play something by Nat King Cole.”
There was a pause of a few seconds. “I can’t find a song named ‘Something’ by Nat King Cole. Would you like to hear ‘Something’ by the Beatles?”
“Stupid machine,” I mumbled. “Play ‘Mona Lisa’ by Nat King Cole.”
“Playing ‘Mona Lisa’ by Nat King Cole.”
After a few seconds, the song began. It was a tiny box with one little speaker, but sounded ok. Surprisingly well, actually. And it was Nat King Cole. “That’s pretty slick,” I had to grin.
“Darnell! It’s time for bed! Let’s go!”
“Yes, Mom!” The kid gave me a hug.
“Good night, Grandpa.”
“Good night, Darn it.”
“Darnell!” he chuckled and ran up the stairs.
Yeah, I loved my grandson, but it was hard to get used to a prepubescent Einstein who knew so much more than me. Seemed like all of the young people knew more than I did. All the new technology, the smart phones, tablets, smart watches and video games. And why the hell do they call it ‘Bluetooth’? No, they didn’t know them. They just knew how to use them, how to operate them, how to click the right icons on the Graphical User Interface that some programmer created. Not a one of them could fix a computer if it was broken. They needed people like me for that.
Nat King Cole was still coming out of the little box. “Vici!”
“Yes, My Grandpa.”
“Jeez, don’t call me that. My name is Matty.”
“I’m sorry. Yes, Matty!”
“You can turn off the music, now.”
The music stopped.
They were all upstairs getting ready for bed. Me? I was about to retire from twenty-five years as a senior technical support manager; a fancy title for an old-fart computer repair tech supervisor. And I was already loving it. I promised my family I’d spend a week with them so they can make sure that I was fine. After that they agreed to leave me the hell alone. I didn’t need to be babysat like some brainless preschooler. But I knew they wouldn’t keep their end of the bargain. They loved me too much. Well, that week would be up tomorrow. Darnell had school in the morning and his parents, my son Frank and daughter-in-law, Lucy had to work. My only obligation was to wake up in the morning with all my faculties intact.
I found my eBook reader on the desk. Now that it was quiet, maybe I could finish my reading. I pressed the power button. Nothing happened. I pressed it again. Damned battery was dead. I set it back on the desk and connected the charger.
“Dad! You down here?”
I turned and saw Frank come down the stairs. “No, I’m in the attic.”
Frank shook his head. “Aren’t you going to bed?” He was already in his pajamas.
“It’s late!” Frank was a handsome young man. Nice tan complexion, a little lighter than me, and wavy black hair that was not cut as short as mine. Married that nice Italian girl, Lucy. Thought I'd have a problem with an interracial marriage at first, but they seemed to be made for each other. And Darnell was growing up to be a damn fine kid.
“So you need your rest,” he stood next to me as I glared sadly at the dead eReader.
“Yes, I do have to be somewhere tomorrow morning,” I looked up at him, he was a head taller than I. “Oh, wait, that place is here!”
“Very funny,” he grinned. “Look, we don’t want you staying up all night again. You’ll oversleep and be late for work.”
“You’re joking, right? I’m just going in to turn in my keys. Get there whenever the hell I feel like it.”
Frank sighed, “You’re as bad as the kid sometimes.”
“Okay, I promise to be in bed before midnight, alright?”
“You know, we do have plenty of room—”
“Ain’t gonna happen, okay? Told you, I have my own place. And I like it there.”
“You’ll still be able to spend time with your friend.”
“Her name is Divya, remember?”
“Just wanted you to know that you’re both welcomed here.”
“Look, son, it must be hard enough for you two to make ends meet these days, you don’t need another—wait, is that it? Do you guys need money?”
“No, Dad! We’re doing okay,” Frank said with an insincere smile.
“Can’t see how,” I looked around the room. “You guys waste electricity like it was free. Like this thing.” I gestured towards the television on the wall. The screen was dark but there was a red light on below. “Don’t you teach the kid to turn things off when he’s done?”
“Probably left it on after streaming that movie.” I grabbed the remote and hit the power button. The light went off and a second later the screen lit up with the evening news, a banner on the bottom of the screen dispassionately reporting the death of another teen as a result of yet another shooting. Another day in the life of a big city. “What the hell?” I hit the button again. The screen went dark and the little light came back on. “That’s stupid. A light to tell you the TV is off?”
“It’s on stand-by. The picture comes up quicker.”
“Wait,” I said. “I got one of these at home. A little older but it’s a flat screen, LED, just like this. When I turn mine on, it takes, like, ten seconds for the picture to come up.”
“This one only takes about three or four seconds,” Frank took the remote from me and set it on the desk.
“So let me get this straight,” I said in my best indignant tone, “This thing sits here, sucking up power all night and half the day just so you don’t have to wait an extra six seconds for a picture? No wonder they call it ‘vampire power’!”
“Well, it’s not exactly ‘sucking up power.’”
“You work for the electric company, for gosh sakes!”
“I manage the customer service department,” he said. “Even still I know that the TV is taking up only a tiny bit of power in standby. Almost nothing.”
“Multiply that by who knows how many millions of these damned things are out there using up electricity doing nothing,” I grumbled. “Doesn’t any of that bother you?”
“If people didn’t use electricity I wouldn’t have a job, now, would I? Why don’t you just calm down and go to bed?”
I hated it when anyone told me to calm down. But this was my son, and I was in his home. So I tried. “Fine. You have to work tomorrow. Go on to bed.” I held up a hand when he opened his mouth to speak. “I’ll be in bed before midnight. I promise.”
Frank hung his head, “Sure, Dad.” He stepped closer and I let him hug me. Then he turned and started back up the stairs. “Good night. I love you.”
“Good night, Frank.” I waited until I was sure he was out of earshot. “I love you too.”
I stared at the empty staircase and decided that I had been defiant enough, I was getting sleepy. I got up and turned off the light over the desk and pulled the sofa bed open and arranged the sheets. After considering what it would take to unpack my ‘jammies, take a shower and change, I stripped down to my skivvies and turned out the ceiling light. I immediately noticed just how dark it wasn’t.
That stupid light on the TV. Below that the cable box brightly displayed the time and the last channel we watched, while the indicator on the streaming video player reminded me that we had actually watched some on demand program. The computer was on, of course, with the hard drive activity light blinking even though no one was sitting there. The monitor screen was blank, but only hibernating as indicated by the little amber light in the corner. The lights on the wireless router on the shelf above the desk were flashing like crazy, I wondered if anyone was actually online somewhere in the house, or if some hacker was trying to gain access. A little green light told me that my eReader was charging while a little blinking blue light assured me that the charger itself was doing its job.
I imagined how much electronic activity was going on in the house while everyone slept. There were digital clocks in every bedroom, on the microwave, the kitchen stove and the radio mounted under the cabinets (how the hell can this family be late for stuff all the time?). There were chargers for every smartphone, tablet, laptop, and mp3 player in the house. The little robot vacuum cleaner was hiding way charging its batteries so that tomorrow, while everyone was out, it could automatically clean the floors and give free rides to the cat.
And everything was connected to the web. Everything. The home security system actively monitoring every door and window was Internet enabled so it could be controlled and checked on a smartphone. There was a computer screen on the refrigerator that they used for—hell, I don’t know what they used it for. They watched streaming movies on their smart TVs. They even had Wi-Fi in the car, for gosh sakes. Every connection was just another way for some bozo somewhere in the world to tap in and take whatever information he wants. The house was bleeding power and data. And no one seemed to know or care about it.
I turned and glared at the little blue box. Damned thing was sitting there listening. Recording everything that being said in the room, probably. I reached over and pulled the plug on it.
Okay, so now I couldn’t sleep. I got up and checked my eReader. “Dummy,” I said to myself, “it won’t have much of a charge after ten minutes.” If I had bought the paper version I would be happily enjoying the adventures of Captain James Kirk and company. Darnell’s tablet was hibernating on the desk. I wondered if I could somehow download the book onto it. I picked it up and tapped it, briefly blinded by the brightness. The Lucky Nurdheads game sprang to life. I watched as the little characters populated the playing field. That just couldn't be random. I stared at the screen. I’d swear I could see a pattern…
Usually I was a very careful and cautious sort of guy, but things were happening fast. If I wasn’t quick, well, the outcome wouldn’t be very pleasant. The man sitting next to me seemed oblivious, as well he should be. This was none of his business. Let him read his Chicago Tribune and fret over the recent wild swings in the stock market. The only things he probably really worried about were his golf handicap and what he was going to have for lunch that day. His was the boring life, while mine was a struggle for victory, no, for survival—almost, almost—wait—where the hell did that come from? A red one! A nuclear nurdhead! Can’t get to it fast enough! It’s gonna explode!
“Dammit!” I spat. The guy reading the paper looked at me with a scowl. “Sorry,” I muttered and tapped the screen on my phone and shut down the Lucky Nurdheads game. He rattled his newspaper and went back to reading about last night’s hockey match. At least he was dealing with reality. All the other passengers on the full-to-capacity train were heads down staring at their phones, either following the inane antics of their online buddies on the Friends and FAM app or playing some stupid game. Like I was. I put my device in my pocket and gazed out of the window. The train was already in the city, gliding north past McCormick Place, my son’s little middle-class kingdom miles behind. Soon, I would walk into that office one more time. One last time. Well, probably not the last time. Not as long as my Divvie still worked there.
Divya was the first woman I ever spoke to after Elaine died four years ago. Didn't think I'd be interested in another woman until I met this very special lady. From the first day she started a year ago, we hit it off. There was just something natural about our attraction. Maybe because she reminded me of Elaine in so many ways. Of course, Elaine was black and beautiful, like me. Divvie wasn't white, but she definitely was not black. At least I don't think that would be the right way to describe her.
Soon I would be a free man. In a way it was kind of cool. I mean, how many people retire on a Monday? Most folk would work the week out while the company gives them a lame party on a Friday afternoon. Thirty minutes and a supermarket cake in exchange for twenty or thirty years of dedication to the job. The date I qualified for retirement fell on a Monday, so dammit, I was leaving on a Monday.
I walked up the steps of Millennium Station and onto Randolph Street. Standing on the sidewalk in front of the Chicago Cultural Center was my old friend Reverend Virtue. I was sure that wasn’t his real name, but it was the way he always introduced himself. He was a handsome black man, late 40’s I would guess. Always dressed in a nice suit as he stood next to his handwritten signs, sometimes with a misspelled word here or there, using a cheap little portable PA system to preach his version of the Gospel. That is, the Gospel that said the world was going to end. Very soon. Of course he’s been saying that for years and his prophecies were notorious for not coming true. He finally wised up a couple of years ago and stopped giving actual dates.
“Hey, Rev!” I waved to him.
He interrupted the sermon that no one was listening to and waved back.
I’m not an atheist or a heathen or anything, mind you, but the good Reverend’s overly literal Bible interpretations were a bit much for me. Still, I had to respect that he was true to his beliefs, and without really bugging anyone he tried to share his interpretation of the Good News. He was out there every day, so unless he worked nights and never slept, he must have lived off the donations that people gave him. I walked over and dropped a dollar in his little bucket. He must have had forty or fifty bucks in change and bills.
“Thank you my brother,” he said to me with a smile and a nod.
I nodded back and turned towards Michigan Avenue. The walk from the train station to the Roydon building was surreal. I paused briefly on the Michigan Avenue bridge and looked east down the river and out to the lake. A mesmerizing view. It was a sunny day in early June with people rushing around in the shadows of the skyscrapers like they all had someplace important to be. So wrapped up in themselves and in their smartphones. To them, nothing else mattered. I was standing on the corner waiting for the light to change when a young woman ran smack into me, nearly knocking me over.
“Oh my God! Oh my God!” She was almost screaming.
“Hey, I’m alright, don’t worry yourself.”
“Where is it? What happened to it?” She was frantically looking around. “Oh my God, where did it go?”
“Hey,” I tried to get her attention. “What is it?”
“I can't afford another one!”
I waved a hand in front of her face. She looked at me, blinked and took one of the wireless earbuds out of her ear.
“What is it you’re looking, for, Miss?”
She stared at me blankly for a second and started crying. “My phone! Where the hell is my phone! I just had it. I was just walking here then you come along and bumped into me—”
“Whoa, lady, you ran into me!”
“I lost my phone!”
I looked around on the sidewalk. “Is that it?”
“Oh no!” She started blubbering as if her best friend had died. She picked up the phone that still seemed to be in one piece, but the back had come off and it looked like the battery had fallen out. She started pressing buttons and tapping the blank screen. “It’s broken! What am I going to do? It’s broken!”
“Wait a second,” I bent down and picked up the battery and the back cover. I pried the phone from her hands. She watched, shivering, as I reassembled it and pressed the power button. The screen lit up with an animated Roydon Technologies logo. “It works, but the screen is cracked.”
“The crack was already there.” she snatched it from me. “You fixed it! Oh my God, you fixed it!” She wiped her eyes, tapped the phone a few times and put the earbud back in. A second later she was back on her way, looking down at her phone as she walked, as if nothing had happened.
“You’re welcome!” I grumbled. That was when I noticed that at least half of the people walking around had their eyes fixed on their little glowing devices, many with buds in their ears. I saw one guy look up just in time to avoid walking into a lamp post. Another was gesticulating wildly as he tried to make his point to someone on the other end of the phone conversation. “They’re all nuts.” I said to myself.