Surviving the Zeroes

Our daughter Sam, who is two years and four months old, walks over to the DVD player and casually presses the eject button. She removes the disc, replaces it with a new one — most likely “Toy Story,” which lately she has been watching about a google times a day — and then pushes the button again to close the DVD tray.

This is something that she has been doing even before she turned a year old, though of course not with such finesse at the start. She also tinkers with the other gadgets and appliances around the house, such as our desktop PC, cell phones, Xbox console, Game Boy Advance and digital video camera. Sam takes technology for granted not only because she possesses the supreme self-confidence of a young child and we encourage her to explore, but also since we have been blessed to live in an age where such digital tools and toys have become accessible to many people.

Welcome to the Zeroes and the future that our children are building today. More than any other generation that came before it, the children born during the Zeroes (also known as the 00s, Zero Years or, my personal favorite, the Oh-Ohs) will be called upon to build a new world and create the rules for surviving in it. They are the first generation whose formative years will be shaped by pervasive technology, whether in our homes or in our offices (which, in my case, are one and the same). They are the true children of the digital age — not we who may have embraced the information technology revolution but whose roots are firmly embedded in the analog world.

For Sam, writing e-mail will be as natural as using pen and paper to produce a letter. I’m not even sure if these children of the Zeroes will find time for snail mail, though my wife Ellen and I will certainly do our best to introduce her to letter writing. The PC will be a familiar friend to my daughter, instead of being the alien creature I first encountered in high school way back in the 80s, whose specs are so unimaginably obsolete today that it might be hard to convince these children that those dark ages actually existed. They might regard as fairy tales the days when cellular phones could double as dumbbells, music came in vinyl records and cassette tapes, and you truly had to dial the numbers on a telephone.

Think about how far we’ve come in terms of technology in the last decade or two. I’m talking as a Martial Law baby, whose teen years were spent listening to New Wave, wearing penny loafers or topsiders, and sporting big hair tamed with mousse or gel. Listening to music meant buying cassette tapes and popping one inside a Walkman. I spent countless hours waiting for favorite songs to be played on the radio, so I could record and compile them on a cassette tape. The compact disc back then was unimaginably expensive, the players even more so — something that may be hard to understand in an age where CDs, CD-ROMs, VCDs and DVDs have been pirated and all sorts of hardware cloned and modified.

Back then, few people had even seen a personal computer, and you could count on your fingers those you knew who had one in their homes. I was never really a techie, but I had friends who were and I learned BASIC and some assembly language from them and our high school computer classes. No matter how fascinating it was, however, I never thought then that the PC would become an important part of my daily life, that it would cease being the hobby of nerds and become a tool that people from all walks of life would be able to use.

As more people have adopted technology, however, the prices of PCs and other devices have dropped, enabling even more people to buy these tools. I’m not saying that computers have already become affordable to everyone, particularly since we live in the Philippines and many of our countrymen can’t even eat three square meals a day. Still, compared to the past few years, more of us have access to cheaper and better technology.

Twenty years later, I live each day fully embracing technology and using it to try to make life better for my family and me. It’s been almost a year since I decided to work completely from home. Partly it’s due to selfish reasons — because of the hellish traffic conditions in this country, you might actually be spending more time going to and from your office than you do on your actual job. Mostly, however, it’s because I made the decision to play an important role in my daughter’s life.

When Sam was born on December 27, 2001 and I took my paternity leave, I realized just how much I wanted to spend each day with her and watch her as she grew up. Even before Sam was born, I vowed to myself that I would be a hands-on dad, that I would be a full partner to my wife in taking care of our child. But no matter how much you might plan for it, nothing really prepares you for that moment when you see your baby for the first time, and you’re overwhelmed by just how much you love your child. I know, it sounds sentimental, and I’ve never really seen myself as an expressive person or a nurturer. Somehow, being a father changed that. I didn’t want to miss out on those early years. I didn’t want to be a stranger to Sam.

I’m lucky that I live in an age where it’s possible to even consider telecommuting, and I’ve been fortunate to land in a field where it can be a practical alternative. Of course, it helps that I work for a forward-looking online news company, though even then it wasn’t easy to convince them to agree to the arrangement. After all, it’s still hard to find companies, particularly in the Philippines, who are comfortable with the idea of employees working from home. Some still want to be reassured by your physical presence, so that they can actually see you working.

In fact, to push through with my plans, I had to make a sacrifice. I would give up my benefits as a regular employee and gamble that they would still retain me as a consultant, churning out the same kind of work without having to be physically present at the office. It meant giving up job security and employee benefits. Becoming a consultant meant I could take on other projects outside the company, but it also entailed a lot of risks, since when I made the decision to leave, they never promised that they would still tap my services. I’m fortunate that I have a wife who understood and supported my decision, and that in the end everything worked out as planned.

Everyday is an adventure with Sam. I’m not pretending that it’s easy. The lines between your work and personal life get blurred when your office is also your home. A toddler suffering from the Terrible Twos (or, more accurately, inflicting suffering) doesn’t cease to throw tantrums just because you’re working. For the past year, I’ve had to balance work with the time I spend bathing Sam, feeding her, changing her diapers, playing with her, reading stories out loud, sterilizing her bottles, taking her out for a stroll — you get the idea. We browse the Sesame Street website together, play a Blue’s Clues CD-ROM game on the PC, and watch home movies of her that I take with our digital videocam. I wouldn’t exchange this set-up for anything, but it’s an arrangement that I have to work hard for, and I admit that on particularly trying days I wonder if I’ve bitten off more than I could chew.

I can almost hear mothers out there saying, “Why do men have to make it sound so hard?” But it is hard, and I have to say that I’m in awe of mothers who have been doing this kind of gig from time immemorial. I think I’ve learned more lessons in the past year that I’ve spent growing up with Sam than at any time in my whole life. I’ve learned to laugh more and see through her eyes and those of my wife, who sees all the beauty in life, even in the smallest things. I’ve learned to be more patient and to be less of a control freak. Anyone who believes that it’s easy to mold a child has never had to deal with a two-year-old in full toddler defiance mode. I’ve learned to live, accept and let go.

Without technology, it would have been difficult, if not impossible, to pull off this kind of arrangement. Technology enables me to download articles — some from the Cebu office — via file transfer protocol (FTP), edit them using Microsoft Word, and send them to my editorial assistant via FTP or e-mail. I keep in touch with my assistant and relay instructions through e-mail, Yahoo! Messenger and text messaging. I have a correspondent in New York and contributors from different parts of the world. This virtual network has worked for me for the past year, and these are the same digital tools that allow multinationals to outsource their business processes to the Philippines, or freelance journalists to write for different publications around the world. As that old New Economy saying goes: “It’s not where you are, it’s what you know.”

Some people have expressed the fear that technology will dehumanize us. What they might not realize is that more than just being a network of computers (or, more accurately, a network of networks), the Internet is primarily a network of people. It allows us to connect and communicate in ways that once might have been too difficult or downright impossible. My wife and I constantly send each other e-mail, and keep in touch with our friends across the country and around the world. For instance, she regularly exchanges e-mail with her cousin in Australia and her former boss and good friend in Amsterdam. Using Yahoo! Messenger, I exchange instant messages with a college buddy who’s now based in Virginia and another friend who moved to France.

One of the most popular Internet applications nowadays, especially among teens in the Philippines, is Friendster, which works on the principle of six degrees of separation. It connects you to a network of people — not only to your friends but also to the friends of the friends of your friends. And since we live in the Philippines, obviously text messaging is a way of life. These are just some of the ways that technology allows us to reach out to old friends and build new relationships. In fact, we have fewer excuses not to keep in touch.

Technology is neither good nor evil. To hear the media, politicians and religious groups talk, you would think that the Internet is nothing more than a haven for pornography, drugs, bombs, pedophiles and other evils. Never mind that all these imperfections existed in society long before the Internet was born. Never mind that no one is pointing a gun at you and forcing you to surf for porn. True, the Internet has its dark side, with websites for and by racists, terrorists, perverts and other unsavory characters. That’s because the Web mirrors the real world, and different people decide to use it for different purposes. We are the ones who should take responsibility for our actions, and at the risk of sounding like a stereotypical parent, we should be aware of what our children are doing and what kind of content they are being exposed to — whether it’s on the Internet, on TV or in the newspaper.

I think that this love-hate relationship with technology springs fundamentally from the tug-of-war between our fear of the unknown and the expectations that technology has created. It’s only fitting that the Zero Years were ushered in by a problem with zeroes, namely the Millennium Bug, Year 2000 problem or Y2K. The hysteria that accompanied Y2K exposed just how deep-seated our fear of technology is, that maybe like Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein we are not in control of our creations.

Ironically, the Zeroes, which you might have expected before to be an age of unwavering faith in digital tools and continuing tech-driven prosperity, has not been kind to the virtual world. From Y2K to the dotcom crash to the Love Bug or ILOVEYOU virus to the current tech and telco slump, the Zeroes have made it unfashionable to be a tech evangelist. In a way, this is a backlash against all the hype of the dotcom years, and continuing resentment over the expectations that were created and yet remain unmet. A paperless office? People have been talking about that for over 30 years. Convergence? It still takes days or weeks just to get a stupid landline in the first place. Broadband? It’s cheaper now, sure, but sometimes you’re paying a premium but end up getting dial-up access speeds.

In spite of these broken promises, however, it’s still true that more people are now enjoying the fruits of technological innovation, from the latest GPRS (general packet radio service) mobile phones to unbelievably fast desktop and mobile computers that also double as home entertainment systems. But even as we worship the material trappings, we have lost our faith in the underlying religion of technology. We use the gadgets, we lust after the gizmos, but you will not usually hear the media spout New Economy rhetoric and gush over the life-changing impact of the Internet. That would be so, well, 90s. Over four years into the Zeroes, we seem to be simply drifting, waiting for something to jump-start the economy, hoping that the next big thing would somehow bring about a new New Economy.

Maybe the problem was that those of us who chose to embrace technology early on unrealistically expected the world to change overnight. We believed that technology would level the playing field and that the New Economy would be a meritocracy, underestimating how entrenched old habits and hierarchies are. Business is supposed to move at the speed of thought, but the reality is that people and organizations do not. You can talk about the transforming powers of the Internet, celebrate freedom of expression and the absence of old rules, but you won’t convince society to change in an instant. The dotcoms believed they were exempt from business rules and cycles. We know what happened to them.

In these more sober times, we’ve also come to realize that maybe we have been changing things for change’s sake. We wanted so much to be digital that we took for granted that it would always be good for us. Look at the example of e-books, all the hype over print-on-demand, and, once again, the paperless office. While storing information in digital form has its advantages, some of us mistakenly took this to mean that paper was a thing of the past — or at least it ought to be. Some brash new media organizations loudly proclaimed the death of print and other traditional media. Some predicted the death of the middleman. In this sense, they wanted the real world reshaped in the image of the virtual one.

I think that in falling flat on our faces in our mistaken assumption of the pace of change, we have embraced the opposite extreme. We now no longer dare to dream big or to fly as high as in those early years of the Internet revolution. Reality, however, is somewhere between fear and hype. It’s time for us to renew our faith in the digital tools that we have inherited, while accepting that just because something is old-fashioned does not mean it’s obsolete. For instance, I would never give up my precious but oh-so-analog books, but that does not mean I’m not grateful that I don’t have to spend a lot of money on a bulky encyclopedia set when I can use Encarta or browse the Web. I know some writers who still prefer to crank out their articles on a manual typewriter. That is their choice, and I respect that. Some music lovers still prefer the imperfections of vinyl records to the sterile sound of a CD. Again, different strokes for different folks.

The key here is to remember that we have more choices now. We can each adopt technology at our own pace, for our own needs. Maybe it has something to do with being a father, but I’ve learned that change is something that happens one day at a time. I’ve also learned that your child is his or her own person, that you cannot force her to follow the image you have created in your own mind and must instead give her the freedom to become who she is.

Surviving the Zeroes means realizing that we are more than this digital stream of 1s and 0s, yet that these tools are here to liberate us if we let them. Look at all the changes that have happened in human society. Maybe they haven’t been as dramatic as the tech-driven utopia we once imagined, but who would have thought only a few years ago that more fathers would want to be the ones to stay home and take care of their children? I’m not saying this to disrespect our own fathers, who made the best of what society was offering them at the time. I am not saying that the choice I made is right for everyone. I’m just saying that we should recognize that we do have a choice, that we can all take a leap of faith and strive for a better balance between our work and our life.

I don’t know what the future holds for my daughter, anymore than I could have foreseen back in high school that I would one day be working from home. But one thing’s for sure: I’ll be with her every step of the way. At the risk of sounding like a stereotypical parent, I think we have a responsibility to give our kids better options than we ourselves enjoyed. The advantage of our children is that they don’t carry around our baggage of fear and frustration. I envy them because they will literally see the virtual world with the eyes of a child. What many of us have lost is the sense of wonder we felt during those heady days when most people either had not heard of the Internet or were too intimidated by it. Remember the first time you saw those dinosaurs on the big screen in “Jurassic Park”? Or how about the first time you saw “Toy Story,” the world’s first fully computer-generated movie (which, as I mentioned at the start, is Sam’s current favorite. Yes, I’m starting the brainwashing early, so sue me.) That’s the kind of feeling we should rekindle, the sense that technology can offer endless possibilities. That’s what we can learn from our children.

After Y2K, after the dotcom crash, after 9-11, we no longer think in terms of changing the world or formulating a philosophy for living with technology. Instead, we have surrendered to the gods of small things: What can I do to block spam? How do I remove this virus? What ring tone should I download? Could you pass some of your SMS load to me? Practical questions, maybe, but ones that only deal with the process and not the purpose of technology in our lives.

On the one hand, this is where our children will surpass us, because they have not yet been disillusioned by technology and have the arrogance of youth that we ourselves once possessed. On the other hand, we must also teach them not to take technology too much for granted. The danger is that they might not appreciate the hard work that went into building this digital world. How would they be able to appreciate how much easier life is nowadays, if they have been weaned on broadband and never experienced the frustration of surfing the Net using a 14.4K modem? Will they feel entitled to the best technology without having to earn it? In a world of instant solutions, from instant messages to instant noodles, will they learn to attach much value to anything?

In our quest to empower them with technology, we must be careful not to spoil them. We must be careful not to let them lose sight of the most important element of the virtual world, which is human creativity. Technology is a tool that gives shape to our thoughts, not a crutch for minds that have lost the power to imagine. Once again, I feel sheepish about sounding like our parents who began sentences with, “In our day…” But it is true that instead of playing games such as hide-and-seek and tag or creating their own makeshift toys, many kids today would rather just play a videogame or watch TV. This again is where we should come in, because it’s our responsibility to know what our children are doing. We can’t shirk our duties by putting the blame on technology. It is up to us to remind them of the value of the real world — whether it is by taking walks in the park, giving them a pet or building a sand castle on the beach. In the process, we will also relearn the value of our own creativity, the human element that our digital tools are only supposed to enhance. After all, “Toy Story” was a great movie not only because it was a dazzling display of state-of-the-art computer animation, but, more important, because it told a great story and contained believable characters. Think about why “Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within” was a technical success yet was ignored by the public, and you will know what I mean.

The journey is only beginning. Together, we will discover more truths about the world that our children are creating. In the end, we might not be the ones to enter the Promised Land, but we can lead the way.

“Surviving the Zeroes” was awarded third prize in 2004 in the Essay Category (English Division) of the Don Carlos Palanca Memorial Awards for Literature, the country’s most prestigious literary competition.