The Frog Meditations: Etch a Sketch 1: The Digital Devolution

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Etch a Sketch 1: The Digital Devolution

How do you recognize an icon? Well, it has a red plastic frame, two white knobs, and a metal-gray screen. And lines. Lots of lines.

There are many middle-aged people for whom the Etch a Sketch was more than a reliable source of reasonably cheap thrills--it was an object of passion. When we twirled the knobs, perfectly straight lines appeared like magic, though the lines were really absence, the aluminum powder that coated the inside of the screen scraped away by a stylus to reveal the dark interior. 

For ninety-nine cents, you can now get an Etch a Sketch as an iPhone app, and you can draw pictures in a range of colors and zoom in and out on your work. In fact, you don't even need the digital knobs because you can use your fingertip to make lines and curves and corkscrews. And that has me worried. Given that these days we click more than we twirl, will our opposable thumbs wither and drop off? Will we lose this "terminal member" to a stealthy process of devolution? Will we lose our hitchhiker's thumb?

I don't have the oversized digits of famed hitchhiker Sissy Hankshaw, the main character of the classic seventies novel Even Cowgirls Get the Blues by Tom Robbins, but my brief forays into the world of hitchhiking were key to my own evolution. That summer in the seventies I was one of hordes of college and university students in the east who took our smooth skin, glossy hair and loose limbs way west by train or bus or car. I was lucky enough to get a waitressing job in a big dining room in a big hotel in the very big mountains of Alberta, and, on my days off, I did what many of the staff did: I planted myself on the side of the highway and stuck out my thumb. I felt safe because I had borrowed a fork from the cafeteria and stuck it in the waistband of my denim shorts. I do confess to a few uneasy moments far along the highway at dusk when the van pulled up, but for the most part, I felt vital and invincible, open to experience. Whom would I meet? What stories would they tell? Where y'headed? I'd hear through a car window that had to be rolled down by hand. We were strangers connecting in unexpected ways. Iconic moments.

Things have changed, of course. If I thought the idea of hitchhiking had even entered the mind of my thirteen-year-old daughter, I would need to be heavily and steadily medicated. I am more an armchair traveler these days, but not unhappily so. As I thumb through memories, the pictures that emerge get clearer, and I see how they connect: each and every line, zigzag or curve has its grace, its beauty. I have certainly made many mistakes, but I am glad I was not able to erase them as easily as I could the images on an Etch A Sketch screen. I want to remember and connect with that fearless young woman whose thumb took her up and down mountains. I want to understand my own evolution. 

The thing about the new app is that you can, with the tip of a finger, draw objects in isolation. With the old Etch a Sketch, you had to find a way to link one image to the next. You had to figure out how to use subtle lines to make connections and create context. A shadow, perhaps. Or a shore.

Or maybe even a highway.