It’s my first “employee outing” at a new part-time web/tech start-up gig, and we’re on our way to an evening of obscure microbrewery beers and nostalgic button punching at Barcade when my boss’s wife gets hit hard by an 8 1/2 month pregnancy-induced burger craving. Having been a vegetarian for the last 14 years of her life, she is new to the many 1/4 pound options that our great neighborhood of Williamsburg has to offer. While I do consider myself somewhat of an expert in this area, I’m also just hoping to get in good with the new boss’s wife, and possibly score some brownie points along the way. Nothing wrong with that, I think, as I reach for my phone to dial in a delivery order to Dumont, my burger of choice. Browsing through my contacts, I tell her to be sure to skip the fries and order a side of mac and cheese instead. “And order it a tad bit rarer than you want it to be when it arrives,” I add, knowingly. “It’ll cook a little on the way here.”
But then, just as I’m beginning to browse through the “D’s,” the realization that I’ve never actually bothered to store their number in my phone sets in. This is some mistake on Nokia’s part, I convince myself. Surely, a number dialed this often on the same phone should eventually be permanently stored somewhere for later retrieval. But it’s silly to argue this now. We have a problem at hand, and, being the technically adept and super resourceful geeks that we are, we set about trying to solve it as best we know how.
“Does anyone here use dodgeball” I ask my fellow employees. “I’ve got google maps on my phone!” one screams out as they stare blankly at their little screen waiting for the tiny map to load. “What about that google directory service where you just punch in a zip code and what you’re looking for? Does anyone know that number for that?” “I’ll check freewilliamsburg.com” another says. “Maybe I can get a WIFI signal here,” as he eagerly pulls his laptop from his bag and sits down on the street corner. “Twitter it!” someone else blurts out, half-jokingly (though, to be honest, querying the crowd seems to be our best bet right now). Everyone’s chiming in with their solutions – about a dozen of them – but none of them seem to be accomplishing the task just right. I step back for a minute and examine the hilarity and the tragedy of this scene.
Nowhere, I think, in all of the visions of the fast and fabulous future, did anyone ever predict a technological failure of this magnitude. At its worst, an accidental melt-down in the core, or a malicious hacker in the mainframe, might cause death and destruction the universe over. At its best, a young programming genius stops the computer virus and saves all of mankind. Either way it’s all made to look pretty damn sexy. But no where, I think to myself as I watch my otherwise intelligent cohorts bumble on the side of the road, feverishly poking their fingers at their phones or snuggling their laptops against the sides of tall apartment buildings, has anyone ever bothered to dramatize the kind of burger-craving pregnancy paings that this poor woman was forced to endure, while her only hope, a group of 20-30 something tech nerds, were momentarily stricken technologically impotent by their array of ubiquitous technology. In the face of danger, rather than use our gizmos and gadgets to solve the problem at hand, we freaked the fuck out.
Now, I spent most of my formative years growing up in the 90’s, and for all its flaws – Friends, scrunchies, Smash Mouth – it really was an amazing time. When I look back on it, I see a time when our parents’ space-aged notions of a Jetsons-like future, rife with obnoxiously invasive technology were finally shattered by the futuristic vision of realists. We didn’t want house-cleaning robots or bubbly flying cars. What we wanted were tools that would actually be useful in our lives, without requiring us to wholly rethink the way that we live them. There may have been a few false starts, but I like to think that we finally got there- Fresh Direct, Google. LOLcats. My generation may have begun its adolescent technological fascination with virtual terror the likes of Lawnmower Man – dire warnings of an alternate reality gone frightfully right, fear of a cyberworld that tears lives and families apart, a cyberbeing becomes sentient and grows increasingly stronger – but it eventually grew into the self-deprecating Existenze, the obviously fantastical Matrix. Maybe it was my coming of age coinciding with these times, but I swear that somewhere along the line we simply stopped being afraid. We all know by now, that much worse than Willow accidentally scanning a demon out of its book-bound dungeon onto the internets, is being stuck out in the world without any aid in figuring out those most mundane, yet pressing, questions in life – “Where am I right now?” “Where is the place where I am going?” “How do I get there?” And while we may still intermittently suffer the obligatory “ghost-in-the-shell” episode of our favorite tv shows, I do generally believe that we have finally gotten what we really want out of sci-fi techno fantasy – a better reality.
This means that I, as an average cell phone-carrying person, can reach my virtual arm out into the cyberworld, and find a burger. Like, now.
So the question at hand, “What is the fucking number?” simple as it sounds, is part of a much larger, much more defining question of technology as it stands in our lives today. We’re still flopping around a bit, and as the situation I found myself in this day has shown me, it’s not for a lack of resources that we haven’t managed to answer it, but rather an over abundance of tools, difficult to navigate and manage, that have made the process clunky and awkward, much less seamless than it should be, the problem itself heightened by the fact that there are just too many damn ways to solve it, so many that none of us could really feel confident in any one tool to be able to use it, none of them really just suited for the situation. Dodgeball, while it could tell us where the place was located, couldn’t give us the number. Google maps – slow and clunky. That Google directory service thing – what was the number again? What was the syntax? WIFI – if we were lucky. Twitter – opps I only have 5 friends and none of them live in Williamsburg. The whole thing reminded me of something my 5th grade English teacher used to say, rather politically incorrectly, that has always stuck with me – “Leave it to a man to invent the leaf-blower. It does all the work of a regular broom, with 10 times the noise.” Suddenly my vision of technology as a better reality seemed like just that, a bunch of noise, and my technically adept friends, not the problem solvers and realists I usually see them as, but a bunch of nerds just getting hyped up about the latest new thing.
But surely, by now, you will have solved this conundrum I’ve described, perhaps even with the same strange mixture of elation and embarassment as I did when, cell phone held to the sky, looking at my intelligent yet confounded friends I yelled “I know! I’ll call 4-1-1!” Now, before you get too excited, and start thinking that you just saved the day, just remember that those 3 little numbers have existed for exactly this purpose for a number of decades now. The same 3 little numbers with which we all experienced the thrill of our first prank call, or the amazement at finding a friend “listed.” But, before you feel too embarrassed either, just recall how long it’s been since you used 411. And, more importantly, ask yourself why. Did you forget your password? Does it not work with your carrier? Or is it just not “loud” enough? Not sexy or new enough to stand out amongst all the tools at our disposal?