Roberto considered himself a ‘digital native.’ He did not know exactly what that meant… but he liked the way the word sounded. He vaguely associated it with ‘aboriginal’ or ‘primitive.’ In his opinion the ‘natives’ were always healthy and pure people. In this case, that purity was associated with development. Confusingly, without further discussion, that combination seemed fabulous to him, someone "who does not pollute the environment and uses artificial intelligence, but with an attitude of progress”.
All of this he had been hearing around there. In his own way — biased by the way — he knew about all of those things (not polluting the planet, respect for different people, sustainable development, information and communication technologies); although he could not explain well what they meant, they could not fail to be mentioned as part of a correct speech. That ‘correction’ could perhaps be called progress? Or the use of cutting-edge technologies? He really did not question it much. Although he was a faithful representative of the digital culture that surrounded him, he never gave a convincing definition of ‘progress,’ nor of ‘home automation’ (which was what his father did), but he only knew that it involved ‘many buttons to press.’ Furthermore, for much of what he did, he did not know why he did it. Simply, "that is the way things are" he said to himself, and that explanation was enough for him.
What little he knew about these subjects he had hardly gleaned from some careless reading; in fact, he barely read. Like all his classmates (he was studying third year of business administration at a private university in a city of an underdeveloped country), the most he read was some digital document (short) and eventually photocopies of parts of some chapters of technical books. When he did this, he would smile and never stop saying slyly: "these practices of the past." He did not even know what literature was, and vaguely, he associated it with that of “the windmills, the tall skinny man and the nice chubby guy” that he had seen on one of his numerous screens (from the television set, the family computer, his table, his cell phone, or on the electronic diary he had installed in front of the toilet in his bathroom?). His grandfather's library (more than three thousand books) seemed inconceivable to him. How could you read all of that?
– Grandpa Ernest, why did you read so much in your life?
– So much? I have hardly read anything, my grandson.
– What do you mean, hardly!? And that giant library you have?
– I wish it was a giant library! Roberto, it is a modest little library. I am going to die without having read even half of what I would have liked.
– But how, grandpa? Are you going to tell me you did not read anything? The number of books here is impressive! This reminds me of what Dad once told me in real-time three-dimensional communication about those geniuses from the past, who spent their entire lives reading. For example, that Uruguayan or Argentinian writer, I do not remember his name, he was so famous…. I think his name was Borgia.
– Borges! Jorge Luis Borges.
– That one! Yes… Dad told me that Borges, reading at his house, learned all by himself how to speak Mandarin. The same devilish language that I am learning now, with the new Linux 45 program version 8.0. It has not been difficult for me at all. But how could this guy have done it without a computer?
– Those were different times, little Roberto.
– Yes, of course… The truth is that sometimes I wonder how those people learned. For instance, that psychologist called Freud, a Jew from Switzerland, who also learned to read Spanish by himself, only with a dictionary. How did they do that, grandpa? Were they smarter than us?
– Smarter? Hmm... I do not think so. Or are young people today dumber than before?
– Well... I do not think so… I am not sure. I would say no, because today no one needs to study a foreign language alone, at his house, struggling with a dictionary. E-learning programs make it easy for you. In three months, you can learn any language perfectly. You also cannot be stupid if you make those programs, right? – It is true, is it not? I confess to you, I never used one of those in my life... I am from another era! But I think they are useful, of course they are.
– Of course, grandpa! I do not consider myself a mastermind and I already speak seven languages thanks to these interactive programs. They are good! You should try them.
– And why at this point in my life, more than 70 years old?
– Well, I don’t know… not to be out. But going back to what we said: I think we are no more stupid now. I do not know if we are smarter… but I do not see why we would be more stupid just because we do not read as much as you do.
For the septuagenarian reader, a renowned intellectual in his midst, a lifelong left militant, reading was a passion. While he was not opposed to the technological explosion, which he had witnessed surging in the second half of his life, he was not really fascinated by it. On the contrary, he kept a certain distance from all that. In any case, the state-of-the-art hearing aid he was wearing – Japanese technology made in China – changed his point of view on these aspects quite a bit. Now he was really hearing...
– At one time it was said that ‘weapons are loaded by the devil... and unloaded by fools.’ Well, Roberto, with technology developed to these extremes today, we could paraphrase and say the same thing.
– How? Are computers loaded by the devil too? And your hearing aid grandpa?
– Eh… it is not exactly like that, of course... I mean to say that…
– Do not justify yourself, grandpa. I know that all of you from another generation see us as foolish consumerists, trivial and shallow, all of us who spend our lives in front of a screen.
– Actually, I did not say exactly that, Roberto, but is there not some truth to it?
– Well... yes and no. What could be said of someone who spends his life in front of a book?
– That is a different thing!
– I don’t know… Why something else? In any case, it is a matter of a point of view. Is it better to read or solve the problems with these machines? And, the female astronaut who just landed on that Mars satellite, Phobos, I think that is its name, don’t you think it is progress? Even if we do not read like past times, people continue to do wonderful things… like your hearing aid for example, or these space travels.
– I still think it is better to read, Roberto. It opens to other worlds, other possibilities.
– Doesn't the internet cloud have it all?
– I could not tell you… I don’t know.
– I think the idea of technology scares you a bit, doesn’t it, grandpa?
– As far as ‘scare me,’ I don’t think so… but I am definitely not like those of your generation, you all were born with a chip stuck in your brains.
– Does that seem bad to you?
– What a question! I think it's impossible to say that is bad, right? It is different, profoundly different from what I experienced... Last time I read a poll it made me laugh.
While they spoke, the grandfather remained seated in his comfortable armchair with armrests, playing with the remote control of his orthopaedic leg, last generation, of German manufacture, which allowed him to walk at a good pace despite his two heart attacks, while Roberto did several things: he read messages on his cell phone, listened to music with his headphones, and typed on his tablet looking for urgent information for a job at the university, that he had just been notified about on one of his seven social networks. Every so often he was taking a look at both the three-dimensional photo of his partner (the flesh and blood one, not the virtual one) as well as others, where he watched orgies in luxurious detail in three dimensions, and with interactive options. Of course, Grandpa was unaware of the latter.
– They were investigating the habits of today's youth – said the old man – I do not know whether the study was specifically dedicated to sexuality or digital technologies. Maybe both. The truth is that there was a question that was asked to young people, frankly it was hilarious.
– Hilarious? What does that mean, grandpa?
– You never heard that word!?
– ‘That inspires joy or makes you laugh,’ according to the dictionary of the Royal Spanish Academy in its latest edition. ‘That makes you want to laugh. For example: a montage with the best hilarious and jubilant black humour,’ according to the Vox Spanish Language Manual Dictionary. The term comes from the Latin ‘hilărans,’ a third declension neuter noun, whose genitive makes: hilarantis; is the active participle of hilarāre, which can be translated as ‘rejoice’ or ‘amusing.’ Its antonyms are: ‘sad,’ ‘serious,’ and in case you are interested in knowing – sorry for pretending to be an erudite, grandpa – in Polish it is said ‘wesoły’ and in Vietnamese it is ‘vui nhộn.’
– My God, Roberto! Wasn't it a moment ago that you did not know what that word meant?
– When you were pronouncing it, I activated the sound decoder, and coincidentally touched the keys of Polish and Vietnamese. Therefore, faster than you were saying it, I was able to have that information. But I owe you the tree of synonyms, which I am just now seeing on the screen of my electronic watch/diary: hilarious also means joyful, content, exhilarated, pleased, happy, satisfied, ridiculous, ridiculous, grotesque, comic, absurd, festive, smiling, humorous, fun, happy, pleasant, jubilant, jovial...
– From where did you get you so much knowledge, Roberto?
– From all these gadgets, grandpa – he said, pointing out the myriad equipment that he had attached, not counting the ones that he had already implanted in a fixed way, inside his body.
The old man was dazzled, at the same time impressed, or perhaps struck, to be more exact. So much so that the inveterate tic reappeared in his left eyebrow, which was only triggered in difficult situations, and which inexorably reactivated the memory of the torture suffered in his youth, when he was a member of the Communist Party. Faced with any strong emotional situation, the tic would return to him, like now.
– Congratulations, Roberto. I see that you are very familiar with the technological world.
– That is right, grandpa. Although, why congratulate me? I was already born with all of this.
In fact, for the elder intellectual Ernest, that fabulous world of digital technologies, artificial intelligence, and everything that he sensed as ‘advanced’ had something magical, of incomprehensible wonder... but also dangerous. His fundamental concern was never hidden, it was the growth of a non-reading and uncritical culture, which had been consolidated a long time ago. According to his opinion, it was an irrecoverable deficit. “A real danger! Perhaps the greatest danger of these current times!" – Well, grandpa, what was that ‘hilarious’ question that you were going to ask a moment ago?
– Even if you laugh, Roberto, the situation was the following: in that investigation young people your age were asked, what they would do if their cell phone rings when they are making love?
– And at least half of them said that they would answer.
The grandson was silent. He hoped his grandfather would continue with the story; he did not understand why he had stopped talking. The silence only made the anecdote more incomprehensible for Roberto.
– Grandpa... what is so hilarious about that?
The grandfather remained even more disconcerted. He did not understand how his grandson had not reacted angrily, or amused, or just… he did not react at all to such a story! It was inconceivable to him. Obviously, for Roberto and perhaps for all the young people of his generation, it was not. "Do all boys live now only to manipulate little machines?" the grandfather wondered, anguished.
Undoubtedly, there were two codes at stake, two worldviews, two life projects. Even two intergenerational conflicting projects. That did not mean that they both loved each other dearly. In fact, Roberto had been raised for much of his childhood by his grandparents, since his parents had gone into exile during the last dictatorship that ravaged their country a few years earlier. During that period, the grandfather, at that time younger and more energetic, had done the impossible to give his grandson an interest for reading and to have critical values, which were very important for him. He did not understand that the young man was a conformist, attached to the prevailing system, where the most important thing was to have fashionable technological machines. For him, as the now distant Salvador Allende of socialist Chile once said, youth could not be understood without irreverence or without rebellion.
– Today the young people seem old. They never question anything. They just buy and buy. They do not know how to do anything else! – He reflected bitterly. For the grandfather, it was unthinkable that a university student would not build a large library in his first year. He came to shed tears in silence, seeing that his grandson was not interested in the same things that he was. He did not read, he did not care about politics, he was only thinking about being in ‘technological’ fashion and he passively accepted what his elders told him.
But there was something else that made the grandfather sad, deeply grieved. Actually, two things: the first, the death of his daughter in exile, Roberto's mother (from devastating cancer), and the second, the lifestyle chosen by his other son, the engineer, whom he considered ‘lost.’ He had been baptized Vladimir Libertarian – although the boy preferred to call himself Jimmy – and was always in a relationship of tension with the now elderly militant. Vladimir was exactly the antithesis of what his father, as well as his now deceased mother, wanted. She was also a member of the Communist Party. He was like Roberto, but more extreme.
He preferred to speak in English and not in Spanish. He made fun of the indigenous people of his country, looked at the North Empire of the Western World with deep reverential admiration, and was a consumer of cutting-edge technologies, infinitely more exaggerated than Roberto. He had four chips inserted (the last, of the most recent generation, allowed him to change sex without distinction). At this time, he lived in Los Angeles and had not communicated with his father in years. The last time our hero Ernest – the old militant – had knowledge of his engineer son’s whereabouts was when he read an article in English, where he adored technology as a new deity, emphasising it was the main element that “the poor, underdeveloped and wild countries of the South Part of the World needed to get out of their backwardness.” What Ernest did not forgive was the sentence with which Jimmy closed his text, written viciously without a doubt with a secret dedication to his father, who he always accused of being a racist: “our country will develop when every Indian owns a smart cell phone.” Today, years after the article was written, there were almost twice as many mobile phones in the country as there were inhabitants... and ‘progress’ had not arrived.
The grandfather was reticent about this deification of technology, but he did not revile it. The day after this scene that we related above, he called his grandson to his study, and with a ceremonial air commented:
– Roberto dear, I must tell you something that will make you fall on your back.
– What is it, grandpa?
– Well… during your parents' exile in Europe, when the civil war was going on here, very unpleasant things happened.
– For one, your mother died.
– Yes, I already knew that. You told me many times; did you forget? From a cancerous head tumour when she was 35 years old. And my dad told me as well, the few times I saw him on the screen.
– Well, Roberto: well…your father never returned from exile. That person who sometimes talks to you on the computer is not your real father in flesh and blood. It is a hologram!
– Ah! That is great! It must be the same program that I use sometimes, when I do not feel like speaking in person here, and I mount my hologram. Haven't you noticed? Now, the real Roberto is in a motel grandpa, with one of his partners. But if he receives a phone call, he surely will answer it. Shall we call?