The idea arrived in an idle moment. It was the early ‘90s and I was navigating my first decade of existence — a formative period I’ll forever associate with missing teeth, ill-fitting overalls, and a firm belief in the miracle of Santa Claus. On this particular occasion, I was buckled into the middle row of my family’s legendary sky blue Dodge Caravan, counting cows and semi-trailers en route from Maine to my grandparents’ in upstate New York. Staring into the rear side of a felt headrest, I had an epiphany: Wouldn’t it be amazing if this thing had a T.V.?
In the absence of gadgets, my antiquated in-car entertainment was limited to the aforementioned cattle counting, traditional boredom affirming games like ABC Bingo and I Spy, arguments with my siblings and early existential introspection to the soundtrack of Van Morrison and The Chieftain’s Irish Heartbeat — on compact cassette, no less. I might’ve read, but something about a stationary page in a moving vehicle has never quite agreed with my stomach. Instead, I was forced to occupy my time with the intangible; my idle arsenal was largely limited to my imagination and thoughts. The horror.
A decade or so later, I’m an “after” product of orthodontics, regularly in adult-sized overalls, and still very much enamored of the holiday season’s glorified, albeit commercialized hero. I’m increasingly bitter, however, that I’ve yet to be fairly compensated for my trillion-dollar tech idea. Or maybe I’m just cynical in response to FOMO. Although portable entertainment became mainstream soon after my road trip epiphany, my parents never purchased a vehicle with a built-in DVD player. Nor did they install a CD player in that blue minivan. When I inherited the once reliable vehicle, road tunes were possible only by way of a battery-operated boom box, cradled in the arms over a passenger in an effort to minimize skipping on bumpy roads.
The digital deprivation extended to my family’s living room, where our T.V. situation would remain stuck in 1992 until I was well into college and legally permitted to drink alcohol. I welcomed digital cable into my life with a true toast over winter break circa 2010, the same year I nannied for a 3 year-old who possessed his very own iPad. Two years later I invested in my first smartphone, and I’ve been using my thumbs to combat road trip boredom ever since (unless I’m driving, of course).
Last week, I found myself with a 4-hour train ride from Boston to New York — the reverse leg of that same day’s morning voyage, which I’d spent in a zombie-like state of sleep deprivation. I found a seat in the business class (when a man reluctantly moved his briefcase) and opened my laptop with the intention of editing a paper on wearable technology. But then I looked around and found I was far from alone; each and every one of my neighbors was behind a screen. It was creepy and, for some reason, a little sad.
I closed my computer and impulsively pulled out a smaller computer — my phone. After a brief exchange of emotionally representative emojis with my better half and a not-so-brief, underwhelming scroll through social media, I forced myself to return my iPhone to its pocket habitat and commence a 4-hour marathon of absolutely nothing.
I wondered what the woman in the sensible shoes and turtleneck was tapping about, and to whom. I counted e-readers and paperbacks in the laps of my fellow passengers and wondered at what point convenience outweighs the smell of a real book. I read dog-eared pages until my head spun and then looked out the window until the night turned the glass into a mirror and I decided I looked like a huge creep. Finally, I stared into the back of a headrest, made a mental note to call my grandparents and thought long and hard about this great idea I had nearly two decades ago when my family would ride in a single minivan to upstate New York.