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A Digital Immigrant's Birthday

I grew up in the era of black and white console television the size of a buffet table, with wooden, panelled sliding doors to hide the screen after use. We had one of those. We enjoyed five local channels on it, including one that featured Neil Amstrong’s first steps on the moon, live via satellite. Remote control came in the form of the person closest to the TV who could change channels via the klink-klank of the rotary dial, but only on kind request.

It was the age of the birthday cards mailed two weeks in advance to get to the celebrators in time, or dropped off in somebody’s house delivered “through the kindness of” a neighbor or a friend.

And then came the telegraph guaranteeing delivery the next day. In the Philippines, the biggest player was “PT&T”, a company that thrived primarily on sales during Valentine’s Day.

PT&T was also the same company that allowed you to talk with somebody in person on his or her birthday. If you lived in a small town 100 kilometers from the capital city (and I did), that meant a scheduled call. You went through an operator, then waited for a signal and connection. As it was expensive to do this call, you would inevitably have had a two-minute conversation that took an hour to set up and complete.

In those days, there were different degrees of luck. If you were lucky, you would have been living in a city, luckier if you had a telephone and luckiest if the other party you wanted to talk to had a telephone line, too. The biggest bonus, of course, was if there was no other party sharing either phone. (Note to millenials: “party line” was somebody who shared the household telephone line. Yes, household. That meant one line for everybody, and everybody else in the other house!)

If one had been in the luckiest bucket, the thrill of a phone call was impeded only by the rotary dialling over this huge black phone. One dialled carefully, as rushing could mean doing it all over again. This of course was not made easy if there were “0s” in the phone number as zero would have meant the longest rotation.

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It was in this world on a special birthday that I had about 10 PT&T telegrams, a Hallmark card from my uncle in the US, a handmade, painted birthday card and a charcoal painting of me, cards and gifts from friends who dropped by personally, a long distance call through the neighbor’s phone, and a personal birthday note from my parents sent through a family friend.

For gifts I received a 33” long playing vinyl record of Elton John, an album carefully wrapped in a perfect square, may have been 12 inches on each side. This was played on our phonograph, manually putting on the needle carefully so as not to scratch the record and have it skipping forever! The album of less than 20 songs was a much bigger treat to the two-song flip-sided, 45”. I received three “pocketbooks” (today’s chapter books) and with my album, needed help to carry my birthday haul.

We took pictures on a camera loaded with film you had to set and wind up properly or you could end up with blank shots. We took every picture with care, without knowing how it would come out or if it would be properly developed. Would the photo shop not scrimp with fresh chemicals? Alas, it would take days to find out. (Note to Millenials 2: Photo shop meant a physical shop that processed tangible photos and not the current digital liposuction software)

Thirty years later. (Warning: do not use your math skills, this is just illustrative and does not reflect my age. I started counting backwards way before Benjamin Button after I hit 40)!

At 12:01 on March 5, 2009, I received an SMS greeting from my sister in Las Vegas, sent in the same minute. As I got to bed at 2 a.m., my husband and best friend of 31 years had a special birthday surprise of a specially ordered red iPod with over 3,200 of my favorite songs, albums, books. This four-inch technological marvel almost got squashed by my middle age bottom!

By the time I woke up on my birthday morning, 30 percent of my Facebook friends had streamed greetings or posted messages on my wall. I was Superpoked with a virtual cake, I received a virtual coke and enjoyed a virtual leche flan.

I gave myself a stay-at-home treat for the day but friends and families dropped by virtually. The day had me buzzing with SMS from friends in the UK, Manila, US, my family exchanging wall-to-wall thoughts about me in Facebook and my Yahoo! Messenger had at least five people on it at any given moment. I Skyped, YMd, texted, forwarded links, uploaded pictures to share, but because I am just a newbie, an immigrant really, I could not Twitter (yet).

Our three digital natives at home gave me a birthday introduction to a bigger digital world. Jesse, age 17, sent me a video birthday card she made on Animoto. Juliene, 15, gave me a painting she probably first designed on the computer using the “tablet”. Jason, 10, presented me with a song he composed on the Mac using garage band.

I had mobile phone calls from friends from grade school who found me in the Net, children of childhood friends who Googled me, and Skype calls from high school friends everywhere, from Piscataway, New Jersey to Dushanbe, Tajikistan. (Huh? Yes! And by the way, all of them had their own personal mobiles and personal computers).

I had a virtual party with over a hundred people. I had a special guest, seven-feet away from me. I had a dozen others, some 7,000 miles away. I had a truly fantastic birthday!

(By the way, I took pictures with my digital camera, looked at them the next second, deleted those I did not like and e-mailed those I liked in the next minutes).

I remember walking away from my phone, my Blackberry and my computer at close to sunset, retreating to our room before a quiet dinner with four of my nearest and dearest. I placed my red iPod on the Bose speakers, just a foot wide, but its sound filling the room. I played the same Elton John song of 30 years ago and smiled.

Oh, what an exciting world of possibilities we live in. We are wired, we are connected, we are here together, right now. We can greet each other OTIF (on time, in full), LOL (laugh out loud) on our wall exchanges, exchange sweets via Superpoke without absorbing any calories, hug each other in the ‘cloud’ and send emoticons if words escaped us.

I migrated to this digital world primarily because I wanted to remain connected to my children. That happened. And more. I remained connected to my father, too, though he is 3,000 miles away. My father? Just got a message from him asking, “wru?” Oh, yes. He is 78.

I closed the day with a note on my Facebook wall.

It gets better every year.

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