Modern Technological Miracles

I am in Michigan again, but this time my wife Terri and daughter Rosie came with me. (You may recall that last month I came up here by myself to help nurse my Mom through a difficult hospitalization and recovery.) We plan to sit down tonight with my parents and my aunt and uncle for a traditional Thanksgiving meal.

We drove to Midland from our home near Washington DC in about ten hours over two days. We’ve done this trip many times before since my parents moved to Midland in 1989. But I was struck by how the drive was both the same but so much different this time, thanks to technology.

For one thing, we never owned a laptop computer before, so we never had one to bring with us. Terri used most of her bonus money to purchase a laptop computer. It’s a neat computer which suffers from one fatal flaw: it appears to be defective. But she so wanted to bring a computer with her to Michigan that she delayed returning it for a defect free computer until we got home from this visit. Since the problem was that it was hard to get it to turn on sometimes, she has basically left it on all the time. It was the last thing to be put in our minivan for the trip north.

In the past the ten hours of driving would have been very tedious. When Rosie was really young it was especially a challenge to keep her amused. She quickly got bored with the books and games we provided. It meant lots of rest stops to give her a chance to run around. Now that she is 14 her tastes are somewhat different. A laptop computer in the car provided her a perfect entertainment device. Built into the computer was a DVD drive, so any of our many DVDs could be played. Her mother and I didn’t have to listen to the noise either because she had headphones that plugged into a port on the computer. She watched a number of movies on the way up, and we didn’t have to entertain her at all. She kept herself amused. When she wasn’t watching movies on the laptop, she could work on her writing with it, or listen to her music that she had copied to the laptop.

When she got bored with the laptop I had an opportunity to play with it myself. One of our projects for the trip was to work on our Christmas cards. What better opportunity to put together a family newsletter than while rushing up I-75.

Battery life would normally be a constraint for a laptop, but was no problem on this trip because of a power converter we purchased that that plugged into our otherwise unused cigarette lighter. Except when the car decelerated or wasn’t producing enough RPMs, the laptop ran off the car’s alternator. In fact it fully charged the battery before we arrived at our hotel near Pittsburgh.

Business men and women have been using laptops on the road for years, but we haven’t used one before. Our hotel offered high speed internet for $10 a night. We declined that option, but did use the phone in the room to dial up to a local Earthlink number and connect to the internet. So a few hours after leaving home I was able to check my email and surf my favorite sites from our hotel room.

Cell phones are another technology we have finally adopted. Both Terri and I have prepaid cell phones that we otherwise rarely use. Both came with us. I realized that our cat sitter didn’t really need to know the hotel we were staying at. It was simply a matter of making sure she had our cell phone numbers and we were instantly available. It is true that my phone for some reason could not pick up a signal where we stayed near the Pittsburgh airport, but Terri’s phone worked fine. All along the turnpike and into Michigan our cell phone signal was strong. While passing through Toledo I took advantage of it to call my parents to let them know when they could expect our arrival. A concern about getting a prescription refilled was speedily answered when my Dad called me back on my cell phone with a list of potential pharmacies at which we could stop.

All of this is really not that remarkable these days, but from my perspective it all seems both magical and amazing. One of the reasons I didn’t like driving long distances was my fear of getting stuck on the road in the middle of nowhere. With a cell phone this fear has largely receded. We can get help conveniently should we need it from the safety of our car.

As I noted there were a few technology glitches. Terri’s new laptop is defective and will have to be replaced, but it was functional in a marginal sort of way for this trip. The power converter from our engine to the laptop made annoying sounds when it wasn’t getting enough current. But traveling by car with a family doesn’t have to be a chore anymore. We are enjoying the fruit of twenty years of steady progress in the personal computer and electronics revolution. These really are modern day miracles, but most of us don’t appreciate them.

It occurred to me while driving that within a few years it will be not only possible, but affordable to travel and always be online. With increasing numbers of high speed wireless internet providers out there, and with options like Wi-Fi hot spots we should be able to find a last minute deal on a hotel reservation as we approach a city, determine if there are traffic delays on the Pennsylvania Turnpike in real time, or even do something as mundane as read our email while in the car. In Rosie’s case she could stay on AOL Instant Messenger while chugging down the thruway.

We’ll be always connected all the time. I guess this is a good thing and if it isn’t hopefully we will always have off buttons on these devices. When we were in Yellowstone National Park in August I was struck by how inaccessible the park was, both geographically and electronically. Most cell phones did not work in the park because there were no cellular phone towers. If you needed to make a call you usually had to queue up at the pay phone in the lodge. But even when I was in range I noticed that my cell phone was very smart, and noticed that I was in a different time zone and changed the time accordingly.

As Paul Simon sang, “These are the days of miracles and wonders.” I am enchanted.

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