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Steve Barnes | Annals of the cyber-age

PALM SPRINGS, Calif. — Not terribly long ago I sat atop the hood of my car, parked on the side of a dirt road just south of Arkansas’s southern border, and, frantic to meet a deadline, prepared to rig a cell phone to my laptop computer, hoping I remembered how to use the contraption, praying there was a transmission tower somewhere above and beyond the evergreen needles. As I prepared to connect the cables, I glanced at the screen and, to my amazement, noted a window that had opened in its lower right corner. Couldn’t be.

But it was. Not one but two wireless options, each bidding me to connect to the Internet. Their nomenclature suggested a private home or business (improbably) nearby, so either surely would require the appropriate code. Nothing ventured, nothing gained, so I ventured to click, and seconds later gained access to the World Wide Web. Deadline met. Figure it out; I still haven’t.

Here, you have to drive up into the mountains to find any pines; the town wasn’t named by lottery. I’m not certain I’ve ever seen a cell tower here, though surely there are some, if somehow they seem less ubiquitous than in Anytown, Arkansas, to include any town west of, say, Lonoke County, to include a lot of towns atop our region’s restless New Madrid Fault, which for almost two centuries has knocked only gently at our door. California building codes, reflecting the groaning San Andreas Fault, which rather more recently and regularly has kicked the door to splinters along with the rest of the house, may explain their comparative absence of tower stature. Yet the service is impressive; at any point on any street, in any neighborhood, one click puts you in touch with your pals in Pine Bluff, your cousin in Conway County, your fraternity brother in Forrest City.

You need a cellphone. Of course.

Everyone has a cellphone. Of course. But Monica’s isn’t working. It’s broken, or used up, something. Monica, a lady of a certain age, is the Significant Other of my best friend here, her happiness a guy named Joe, and she’s not well. Monica knows less about cyber-technology than I do, and Joe knows less, which is OK since Joe won’t be back for another few hours. Monica’s nurse knows more than Monica, Joe or me. But she doesn’t know Monica’s cell account password. Monica can’t remember it and, like presumably millions of other Americans, didn’t write it down, or wrote it down and then lost it. You can’t get very far with your provider, even an audibly young and quite empathetic human being as its representative, who is trying her best to help the nurse and me navigate.

Amid the confusion — the attempts to recover the password, the coaxing of Monica’s memory, the appeals to corporate common sense that the corporation’s agent acknowledged but was powerless to sustain, the effort to access Monica’s e-mail through one or another “smartphone” — emerges what had been overlooked or unheard: Monica indeed has a computer, a laptop, right over there, buried beneath greeting cards and newspapers and other detritus of unending convalescence. And, with the same fortune as the pine forest Internet connection, no password is necessary to open it.

Monica has not used her computer since at least February, I noted, as the indicator says exactly 2,009 emails await downloading. The process, on a laptop and a program even I recognize as a decade out of date, requires almost 25 minutes. I am reading another person’s emails, the cyber-correspondence of a wonderful lady who survives on Social Security and a modest pension, and who cannot fend for herself; and I am appalled and angered at the hundreds of attempted scams unfolding on her computer screen. Finally, her cellphone account appeared, with a temporary password.

To prevent another scam, the phone company’s rep ruefully informed us, we could replace Monica’s phone that day only if she appeared at the local office (completely out of the question) or if her account included a second person. None was listed but could be added.

“We’re getting married,” I told Monica. But just then Joe returned, to learn that he was about to become a cyber-groom, his 20-year relationship with Monica formalized in the Cathedral of Cyberspace. The priest was the phone company, I was best man and the nurse maid of honor. Joe and I drove to the local office and fetched the new phone, recording the marriage license, as it were.

Monica is back in touch with the world, cradling in thin fingers her link to the world.

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