Monday, January 7, 2013

Urban Anthropology

The Internet has not reached everyone in the United States yet. And when a citizen encounters The Web for the first time, it's like a toddler in a toy store.

Yesterday we visited with my dad's old buddy from WWII days, Sahib. (He and dad were in India together.) He's 95. He's a bit frail, but he makes good time zooming around the halls of the retirement village on his walker. He is mentally as sharp as a hangnail, remembering the distant past and yesterday with clarity and humor.

Sahib is a bit of a Luddite: he eschews cell phones and computers, and relies on his cradle phone from the 1980s and good old-fashioned snail mail to communicate with his 11 god-children and countless cousins, nieces, nephews, and friends.

He had kept in touch with most of his band of brothers from the war; but he'd lost track of one or two. He remembered my dad fondly, and told us stories spanning their 70-year friendship. 

"Al was in charge of scheduling shifts to man the radio 24 hours a day, seven days a week," Sahib told me. "He'd make sure the shifts were covered, every leave accommodated, and each man given an equal assignment--and he made it seem easy."

Sahib named the seven or eight men who served in the same [unit] with him (or some other army word), including my dad, who died this past June. "I might be the last one left," he said. "I know most of them have passed--but I'm not sure about Frank."

"Well, then," I said, whipping out my trusty I-Phone. "Maybe we can find out. What's his last name? Do you know where he lived?" I googled Frank with his last name and nickname, in Louisville, Kentucky, and up popped his phone number and address. I showed it to Sahib, who practically fell off his leather easy chair.

"Oh!" he said. "Oh my. Oh. My. God. Omigod."

Then he continued, eloquently: "How...who...what...? How do they get that in there? Who puts it in there?" I think he wasn't even sure what question to ask, or what exactly he meant by "in there." 

"They must have so many people getting that information and putting it in there," he observed, probably imagining thousands of re-purposed Lollipop Guild munchkins poring over phone books and madly typing in names and numbers. 

Then he got even more excited. "Am I in there? What happens if you put my name in?"--like it was a magic trick, and if I waved my hands I could make a king of hearts appear with his name on it.I googled Sahib's full name, and his White Pages information came up, along with 2.7 million additional hits. (Sahib was a smidge miffed at this affront; he said, "I thought I was an original!")

"Oh my God!" he said, over and over. "I can't believe this. Can you put in my brother's name? He was a cop who investigated an infamous triple homicide." Sure enough, the obituary for Sahib's brother popped up, mentioning the case and quoting the Sahib himself.

"What's this...this thing called?" he asked. "How much information is out there? Who puts it there?"

"It's called the Internet, Sahib," I said. "It's like an information library, but it's all electronic."

He asked more questions, as animated as a kid getting to know his brand new puppy; and when I told him about I-Pads, he hopped right on board. 

"I'm gonna get one of those things," he said. "And I'm gonna learn how to use it, too!" His slightly younger cousin has a laptop which sits, unused, in her apartment. Just like Sahib's cell phone, which, he said, he "never could figure out how to use."

We left him with the promise that we'd be back soon to play on the Internet some more with him; and I felt glee at having had the rare experience of introducing my friend to this brand new world of the Information Superhighway. I felt like an anthropologist visiting an undiscovered people group and introducing them to Doritos for the very first time.