Virtual Madeleines

In the wake of my son’s birth almost 17 months ago, I found myself gladly homebound amidst the dizzying adventures of parenthood. I also found myself making much more use of my skype and my facebook accounts, seeing as how they allowed me stay in touch with all my friends and family even with a sleeping infant on my lap. This got me to thinking about the common knowledge that technology is a grand thing. After all, without my web camera, my parents would have been in Brooklyn more frequently than we could have stood for.

Despite this appreciation, though, I also am old enough to remember when email first emerged as a means of communication, and a time when google wasn’t the defacto search engine (whatever happened to excite?). This means that I have also been privvy to the skepticism about all things internet: Instant messaging will kill conversation; email will kill snail mail; mp3 trading will kill high fidelity audio. The gist of this perspective has always been that technology is some kind of mass murderer, stalking the territory of the traditional arts with a bloodied kitchen knife.

Of course, this has turned out to be untrue, but for different reasons than I would have thought.

Take for instance the discovery I made recently when I mistakenly entered my childhood address into google maps. I haven’t lived in my childhood house for 15 years, and my father moved out 12 years ago, but there I was staring at a satellite image of the japanese maple that my dad, brother and I transplanted from the backyard to the front on a long and hot Sunday afternoon….

I was deeply affected by the site of my old house from above. I suddenly wanted to explore my backyard again and squeeze through the fence to the alleyway, school and field behind it.

And then I noticed the creek where my brother and I used to look for crayfish under algae-slickened rocks. We would take turns leaping from rock to rock in the shallower areas, so that when we invariably fell in, we got only our pant cuffs wet.

I was so moved by the memories of these places that I felt compelled to visit this area on a recent trip home and take some photos. I didn’t see my house so much as I visited the dark and decrepit alleyway behind it (It was clear that the original wood is still holding up the alley wall because someone had erected a fence to prevent the walls from caving in). I also when to the creek, where a pvc pipe now links one bank to the other, probably as a means to drain the still swampy field.

So, as I track the serial killer instincts of the internet, I am also keeping my eye on its Proustian cousin, dangling collections of memories and unsuspecting views in front of my eyes at every turn. If I am urged to action in the physical world because of a chance encounter online, I count my computer not as a taker of life, but as a giver of one.