THE DIGITAL STRAP MYTH
It was a [un]real – or maybe [un]reel – or maybe neither because it could very well be a dreamscape conjected by pixels and nodes – changing, turbulent, and many other adjectives that could be filled out in a college-ruled notebook, or perhaps one of those Xanga weblogs or photoblogs people were so fond of using to share and archive these days – odyssey. An odyssey towards a changing culture. An odyssey of a changing world. An odyssey of changing habits. An odyssey of changing interactions and connectivity. An odyssey of delirious changes that people within her cohort, the baby boomers’ demographic, couldn’t have predicted because they weren’t goddamn fortune tellers. Their pasts, mostly deleted historical trajectories that have never been published in print, still lingered into the deceptive porous, scar-prone, cracks of their present bodies. But according to her daughter, some of those deletions are now being typed – printed online – uploaded on various mediums and platforms, resurfacing as living, haunting entities in the form of serif or sans serif fonts as opposed to assumed dead specters floating around, waiting to regain visibility through the repetitive finger tapping of keyboards or the unintended lurid clicking off a mouse.
An odyssey of the future, of a predictive future from those eerie, surveillance likened narratives her daughter loved to read and watched about and continued to appreciate in this oddly mutable societal and cultural climate. And perhaps a shift – not necessarily an odyssey – of a changing working environment. One she hated, couldn’t fathom, nor did she grow up in that culture. Working at the age of thirteen to support her entire family after her grandfather was brutally beaten by his supposed friends, the bones and arteries of his right leg permanently damaged, she was socialized into an unwavering belief that it was honest hard work that allowed people to progress and prosper.
How wrong she had been as she sat in the present, as her daughter was beginning to live in the future, her daughter’s annoying words forcing themselves back onto her, waiting for her to concede that she was wrong about a changing technological culture once Times Square Ball dropped on national television in 2000, or Y2K.
“I told you Má.1 Humans are going to be more dependent on computers and technology after the bulky Zach Morris phone became a trend,” her young daughter, Leigh commented, victoriously.
“Actually, Captain Kirk’s gold communicator was the prototype that inspired the flip phone craze, you idiot. So it really began in the 60s,” her nephew but now legally adopted son, Ben, argued.
“Shut up Trekkie! Go live, long, and prosper elsewhere.”
“Like I haven’t heard that before, Ms. Original.”
Their bickering took place in 2007, and she remembered her migraine after sending them to sit in the corner, opposite of each other, after they exchanged expletives.
Phạm Khả Tú, a woman currently 70 years of age, still in excellent health, recently got acquainted with the trendy technological jargon through, once again, her daughter, the connective, liminal entity that transported offline to be with her and online to be with whomever she met in her virtual world – changing, sat in the chair, uncomfortably erect in her current position, as she waited.
Hard work no longer had value or currency in the United States. After her first week of being a freshman, Leigh came home for dinner and educated Tú on the bootstrap myth: the American Dream, an idea where people who work hard would prevail and lift themselves upwards on the economical and societal ladder.
“In other words,” Leigh further explained, “you lift your bootstraps up and work had for your success. So basically, hard work equates to success.”
She didn’t even know what bootstraps were, mistakenly thinking Leigh said bra straps and yelled at her for her crude language, but of course, Leigh always had to have the last word and immediately Googled image the pictorial word via her phone to show her.
Not only did she not know what bootstraps were, but that imaginary ladder has yet to materialize in front of her. Perhaps because she wasn’t an American born citizen, obtaining her citizenship at the ripe age of forty-three, even then, her prominent accent was a major indicator that she wasn’t one of them.
She only purchased a new car because she and Vũ, her husband, could afford it and her last car finally exhausted its pipes and engines, succumbing to its own internal combustion. And she’ll also never trust Ben’s choice of car again: a computerized car where human and car synchronicity was the latest prized connective possession. It was a silly notion to her. They said it was her problem, to not follow the inevitable trajectories of technology and the digital world, but she always told them, “Your father and I lived during the 60s, 70s, 80s, 90s, and Y2K without these advancing technology gadgets that’s always on your Christmas wish lists, and I turned out fine, never bored. Your father still doesn’t have a cell phone and he’s content with his life.”
That usually got them quiet until a similar debate occurred several weeks later. It was all very unreal – unreel – to her. This desire to keep up with the updates; did she give birth to software? She nurtured them and socialized them to be acquainted with their culture, heritage, and be overall good humans, but as a mother, it seemed, she didn’t have the ability to upgrade them to remain happy in this digital world. Most nights she caught Leigh in her room not sleeping, obsessively staring at her phone.
“Phone scrolling insomnia, Má Tú,” Leigh told her, introducing yet another term she didn’t understand.
“What?” she asked, wanting her to say more, even in her zombie like state.
“It’s this phenomenon, I guess, where you stay up just to scroll on your phone, even if you feel tired, but can’t put your phone down. I guess it’s to remain connected.”
Leigh rolled her eyes Tú, unimpressed, and physically showed her what she meant.
“Oh. And that’s why you look so dead in the mornings? I thought you were up late studying hard,” an equally unimpressed Tú countered, “You are really stupid, just like your technology.”
“It’s the future, Má Tú. You should try living in it and then you’ll understand.”
Her watch indicated it was still early, making her wait a little bit longer. Perhaps she could use that spare time to rethink her standing with the movable future that everyone was plugged into. Not only did it kill time for her, but it was a brief, very brief, history of her time since coming here in 1994 as she witnessed people digitally strapping themselves, and she, unwittingly became a participant of the birth of digital socialization.
Young children begging was her weak spot, especially since she was pregnant with her first child.
“Ben,” she chided, “I know everyone has one, but you can still use the computer Ba bought and type your assignments. It doesn’t necessarily have to be a newer model, it’s just three years old. We can buy you new one when we can budget for it.”
“But Ba bought it old and used,” Ben started, choking out the words, old and used. Ever since he told his friends that some of his clothes and toys were purchased at the local Salvation Army, they laughed at him for buying used items at dirty thrift stores that were reserved for poor people, never mind the fact that Vũ found an ad in the newspaper about a gently used computer, called and inquired, and then scheduled a time to look at it before buying it for $100. “But like my friends said, it’s better to have a computer with Microsoft Office so I can save the document on a floppy disk and bring it to school since we don’t have a printer. The school uses Office and the document can be transmitted from different computers for compatibility. See? You save more time with a newer computer investment.”
Tú maintained her previous stance, unyielding.
“Please, Dì,2 I mean Má, there’s search engines, which will be beneficial for my schoolwork. The computer Ba bought for me was an old KLH 286, and you have to type specific commands to go to the desktop, and no Internet. With a new computer, I can Ask Jeeves anything.”
“Who is this Jeeves, Ben? Didn’t I tell you not to talk to strangers, Ben?”
“It’s an Internet search engine, Má,” Ben replied, pursing his lips to avoid an annoyed sigh from escaping.
“Enter Net? You want to enter a web to ask information?”
Ben really did release a sigh this time. “No, Má Internet, a global computer network where you can access and enter information.”
Nothing could convince her about this Enter Net, it sounded extremely dangerous, a web where kids were precariously hanging around in a death trap. Which human came up with the brilliant idea of architecting this type of space where there were no parental guidance or authorities securing some locks to avoid any potential mishaps?
“I saved up some money, Má. Can you take me to Circuit City this weekend and we can just browse?”
After discovering dial-up, by plugging a lone telephone cord and sticking it in the computer somewhere and whatever phone line was available on location, Ben remained glued to his newest Hewlett Packard Pavilion computer model, even after several months. It was fun for him, he was playing games, chatting with people simply by clicking and hitting the keyboard, but it was terrible for them because she and Vũ couldn’t receive or make calls. All they heard was a weird noise as if the telephone was malfunctioning while making that awful white noise that was enough to question if aliens – not the label that American citizens categorically labeled them as – existed.
“For Buddha’s sake, Ben. Go to sleep, read, or go ride your bicycle for a few hours. Ba and I might need the phone.”
Ben didn’t even turn around as he replied, “I can’t, I’m talking to my friends.”
“You weren’t even speaking until now.”
“I mean, chatting. I’m doing online chatting.”
“What is that?”
“Internet chatting that doesn’t involve verbal communication.”
What world was Tú currently witnessing? When did chatting compute to staring at a plugged screen and how could one talk to each other through those very screens? Were their computers or computer tower – a term she just learned from Ben after she inquired about the dangers of a fanning, overheated tower that threatened to blow their entire house up – all connected to each other? Was it like the Autobots’ Teletraan I, a computer that was capable of talking to them? But she didn’t hear any sounds aside from that annoying keyboard tapping.
When she was involved in conversations, it was usually outside as she and her friends exited the lycée and walked to their usual café bar, talking as they all eyed how the steel single-cup coffee filter slowly dripped the coffee into the glass, mixing it with the condense milk at the bottom, slowly turning it into a milky brown color as their chatter drowned out the dripping noises. Today, in a present she never predicted, chatting was not about the voice levels, but clickings and tappings.
She heard the sound of a door creaking to open and then shutting, odd noises emitting from Ben’s computer speakers, prompting her to stare at the fingerprinted computer screen longer than a minute – a record for her because she hated the damn thing – and looked at a long, rectangular skinny box and a big square box with a lot of letters. Curious at the letters, she took note of whatever this word was:
She could only decode the word rice within that long strand of jumbo words.
She showed him her note. “What does this mean?”
“It’s my AOL screen name.”
Exhausted by all of these present changes that were no doubt slowly dialing itself into the future lines, Tú needed answers. “Ben, who are you talking to? Is it Jeeves and what is this recent need to listen to Vietnamese music and watch the American documentaries about the war that you were never interested in? And I see you watching a lot of those videos where different Asian groups are singing bizarrely, watching Japanese cartoons after school, and now you’re wearing oversized clothes from those pictures you like to scroll through”
“I’m Vietnamese, Má. I have a right to know my heritage.”
“You were born in Sóc Trăng, Ben, it’s not like you don’t know about our country.”
“But I left Việt Nam when I was seven, I don’t remember.”
“It’s only been four years, Ben, and I remember you didn’t even like a lot of the Vietnamese cultural arts.
“That was then, now I am. It’s all about the AZN Pride.”
Even she knew that didn’t sound like an English word. “The what?”
“AZN Pride. You know, Asian Pride. It’s just this cool movement where people like me, away from their actual birth countries, participating in this cultural movement where we show our Asian Pride in the forms of various new wave style of music and other trends.”
She didn’t get it. “You know, you can just talk to me or Ba about your culture. Why talk to strangers on the Enter Net?”
“God, it’s Internet Má. And they’re not strangers, they’re my friends who understand me.”
“So you’re more comfortable keying words to these friends you don’t never met and you don’t feel comfortable talking to your parents?”
“Yeah? I mean the AZN Pride group is all over the States, Má. Chinese, Japanese, Vietnamese, Korean, Laotians, Philippines, I mean we’re all diverse.”
Ben sat down in his chair and started clicking again, she watched him type the next message:
AiGhT. iMma GoNna CHeCk It OuT iN a BiTz, AiGhT?
Attempting to read in a coded language that she has yet to learn – she wasn’t even that fluent in English yet – was proving to be difficult and the screen made her feel nauseated. But she marveled at the fact that kids living with technology were learning about their culture and history online, where things were constantly being changed – Ben, a member of this Enter Net himself confirmed – as they increasingly socialized with invisible entities from whichever lines they were connected to technologies, an alien living in their house that apparently knew more about her own culture than she did herself. She simply remembered she learned everything from her grandparents, parents, uncles, and aunts, all orally passed down to her. Now, she was unable to converse with her son because he preferred the interference lines that he couldn’t even turn away from as new generational waves were being transferred to his brain. How did technologies suddenly become a playground center and a parental figure that couldn’t yell?
Tú now knew the reason she hated Optimus Prime and preferred that evil gun transformer, Ben’s favorite cartoon show, because they were so dependent on Teletraan I. Ben was becoming the next Prime.
Being an involuntary participant in a world that reminded her of those space invaders made everything so surreal. The last time she returned to Việt Nam with her family was in 2014 and it was a different world. Though politically different and strange to them – even if it was her third trip back to their country – the country has yet to update itself with the quarterly technological updates most of East Asia and the Western civilization were entangling themselves with. Digital connectivity was remarkably plentiful in a country that was considered more impoverished and less developed because they were still in the beginning stages of the industrialized revolution of sorts, but the country itself was more updated than she ever would be – wanted to be – needed to be.
She thought she witnessed it all and the upgraded plug-ins that were mere extensions of the older prototypes, and she resigned herself in participating in the bare minimum, starting with Ben’s robotic attachment to his Hewlett Packard Pavilion to his 2005 Dell Inspiron 9300 laptop, to other laptops that lost weight because the ideal prototype of the future was sleek and thin – much like the future of human figures, then and now – and holographic based modems that she thought looked cartoonish and unreal.
She should have known that Ben’s foray into the machines was a blueprint for Leigh to follow into the present now, the continually updated digital world. Instead of searching for a job after graduating with a Bachelors of Arts degree that carried specific criteria explicitly catered for those who were maybe qualified to develop their careers, Leigh decided to become a YouTuber; it wasn’t a new job, it was her second job, her first job working as a barista of one of the many local coffee shops that changed ownership and name every few years, even coffee shops experienced high turnover rates. After connecting with strangers, yet again, on the world wide web, in the form of social media as they called it, Leigh decided to embark on the YouTube hysteria, the more views and subscribers, the more possibility of paid sponsorships or financial support on a website called Patreon. She first did those ASMR videos, sometimes eating Vietnamese foods, asking Tú to cook foods that had a crunch factor so the microphone could amplify the noise; the crunchier the food, the likelihood of thumbs up and views Leigh garnered.
“So, are you selling sex online, Leigh? Be honest,” Tú angrily asked, preparing for the worse.
“What? No! Of course not, Má Tú. Although people are free to do whatever online to make money to survive, all I do is perform noise. ASMR,” Leigh replied, feeling a bit warm in the face as she couldn’t believe she was finally having this kind of talk with her mother, late in life, early in her twenties.
“I remember you said people just uploaded movie clips or songs. You’re singing in that awful tone deaf voice of yours?”
“Well, not really. Content and information are always new modes of the old, Má Tú. I’m just broadcasting things on a shared community where people like to be a part of an audio-based autonomous sensory meridian experience. Vlogging is popular and I get money, so what’s not to like?”
“Why can’t you just look for a new job? A real job”
“Vlogging is a real job. I’m generating so much revenue, and you know, I need to be ahead of the future in order to be on top of the digital ladder.”
Tú was still unable to understand the digital corporation circa 1998. Why was it the future? And after that conversation, Leigh rose into the top ranks of YouTube World in 2018 and became a popular YouTuber, amassing several audiences, communities, and was considered a celebrity, a new form of bourgeoise of this era. She made enough to pay off her loans and pay the house mortgage, a pious act that she and Vũ were grateful for, but they both didn’t like that she became a shareable celebrity on a world that entered everything and didn’t forget.
Now 2019, a new realm emerged called the YouTube+World, a gross digital version of Hollywood where Z celebrities became the new icons – or digital holograms, which reminded her of Jem for some reason – but it was her choice to extend herself as one of the many human wires who plugged themselves into the Enter Net, where netizens knew everything about YouTube celebrities and where Leigh graduated from ASMR vlogging to a YouTuber lifestylist, showing off her chic condo, only streaming the beauty and glamorous side of her new digitized style, which was essentially an update of the past celebrity life, only the paparazzi were the commenters.
She didn’t belong in the digital realm, it became less inhabitable for her.
Forget those science fiction shows her daughter made her watch repeatedly. Forget AI for the time being. Forget the robots. Forget the humans. Today, the present, tomorrow, the future, and the ongoing entangled future that threaded the pasts, presents, and futures together, status, financial privileges, work – working minimally on a desktop or laptop with Wi-Fi access – were not even comparable to the minimum wages she worked for as she managed to physically perform laborious tasks, it was all changing. She was probably one of those aging, unadaptable, traditional humans who continued to value hard work, even if she never once was fluent enough to climb up the affluent, economic ladder, nor did she ever wear bootstraps because they were aesthetically horrendous to her, but she worked for her money to help raise her money. Tears were shed, ears hurt after being a scapegoat for a screaming supervisor, black, blue, and purple bruises formed weekly, but they were all corporeal and tangible. She felt all of that, and continued to work to survive. Now, in front of a computer screen with available streaming services, people, most of them young, labeled as the millennials, Generation Y – or was there now another identitarian label for the subsequent ones: Generation Z? – doing minimal work for a large pay.
Though it pained her to admit it because she thought her life experiences, someone who grew up before the war ended, living as a child near the end of the war, remained behind to be with her grandparents, and assumed the identity of an immigrant, whose status was constantly contested between illegal or legal, made her wiser, more all-knowing, Leigh was correct. The digital strap myth was no longer a myth, it was now a reality. Who cares about hard work when the presentfuture made work seemingly financially easy, almost alerting her that there was a darker online Ponzi Scheme currently waiting to surface on the many social media pages, when you can just plug yourself in and share intimate details about your life to the world to garner sponsors and ads? It was the byproduct of being socialized with technology and the digital realm. Who needed to socialize with humans when it was easier to press buttons? The money was virtually rolling in like bitcoins. Money was no longer printed, cards with chips, much like the one that was forcefully implanted in her brain as a means of identification for those not having an ID in the digital world, was the currency and the future of safe and responsible spending, never mind that she often forgot her PIN number even with a chip that reminded her of her
Realizing that she failed to mention to herself that the year was 2025, 70-year-old Phạm Khả Tú, who was known as a woman who worked like a bull all her life, was sitting – or in her case, now lying, like a lifeless form, on an obviously expensively architected dental patient chair, capped with golden bars, screws, and everything of the sort, waiting for the robot dentist’s hands to finish her deep cleaning.
She may be getting older, but she still yearned for a less digitized communal future as sockets and plug-ins increased and where communication was verbally clearer and intimacy extended beyond the glares of the screen. And those left behind were the ones who refused to participate in the plug-in system and maintaining their trailing and tangled cords.
The future was not only lonely, but she once again felt like an alien strapped in a universe that produced too many inventions that could no longer experience extinction as humans fell off that damn digital ladder.
One of the many words for mother in Vietnamese.
Aunt, typically used when referring to the person’s mother’s younger sister.
Kathy Nguyen is an emerging writer, focusing on diasporic narratives. Her works have been published by ejcjs: electronic journal of contemporary japanese studies, Ekphrasis, Kartika Review, FIVE:2:ONE, diaCRITICS: arts & culture of the Vietnamese and SE Asian diaspora, and has other forthcoming publications. She is also a fiction reader for CRAFT Literary.
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