On Words and Old Mail
This post is by Jason Whiting, Whenabouts' author...
I turned 12 on a remote Canadian side-street in the winter of 1985. In those days, when I wasn’t making questionable music and fashion choices, I could usually be found playing Intellivision at my friend Colin’s or, if it wasn’t too cold out, further down the road hunting ducks on Jason Harvey’s Atari. Mike Kowalchuk’s family had the mid-80s version of a high-end PC, a Radio Shack TRS-80 or other Commodore-64 knockoff that loaded games from rewound cassette tapes, a process that I still find charming and sort of magical two decades and one computer engineering degree later.
The 12-year-old version of me was entranced by technology, the pixellated graphics and 8-bit sound lifting me out of the monotony of my everyday life in rural Ontario. My friends and I were witnesses and willing participants in the birth of the computer age, those early days of cartridges and consoles setting the stage for the full-scale production that was to come: the introduction of email and the Internet, the explosion of online gaming and the rise of handheld computing. But it wasn’t the wonder and power of our HD generation that recently caused me to pause and re-evaluate my position on the steep technology continuum. It was something that my friend’s kid said.
Up until a month ago, I’d been living and working in Montreal, a city known for its musicians, nightlife, superior bagels and French-speaking majority. Living part of my life in a second language was often challenging but mostly I found the experience to be edifying. I especially liked it when hiccups in translation would crack open insights into my own English-speaking reality. I remember watching European soccer one afternoon with my French-Canadian roommate.
“‘Les Pays-Bas’,” I said, referring to the orange-uniformed team onscreen. “Sounds funny.” I offered up the literal English translation: “‘The Low Countries’.” My roommate smiled and nodded, “What do you call them in English?” It wasn’t until the answer was on my lips that I was able to hear the meaning ‘hidden’ in my own language. We, of course, call them the Netherlands...
Words are important, which is why French-speaking Canadians, feeling surrounded and outnumbered by English-speaking North Americans, spend a lot of time obsessing about language. It’s the reason why although stop signs in France say “Stop”, in Quebec they say “Arrêt” and why, when the new computing age was exploding all across the world, Quebec rushed to coin French words for the new technologies. Quebecers were responsible for introducing a new word to the French vocabulary, calling email “courriel”, a contraction of “courrier” (the French word for “mail”) and “el” for “électronique”. Which brings me back to the story of my friend’s kid.
During an early Whenabouts brainstorming session, one of the French-speaking members of our group was telling us about an interaction he’d had with his pre-tweenaged son. “Papa va chercher le courrier,” Patrick said to his son (“Daddy’s going to pick up the mail.”). His son, Antoine, paused and cocked his head. “You mean courriel’ dad,” his son replied, in French. “It’s pronounced courriel.” Antoine had never heard of any other kind of mail.
We live in exciting times. Humans are struggling towards an uncertain future, simultaneously lifted up by some new technologies while others threaten to undo all that we’ve accomplished. And do these advancements bring us closer together or drive us further apart? Were my growing-up experiences anything special or simply a different version of something that’s been happening for generations? My parents grew up without computers of any kind. My grandfather was born in a house that not only didn’t have a telephone, it didn’t have electricity.
The creators of the Whenabouts project, ultimately, were intrigued by this yawning generational gap. We wanted to do something that would make boring old postal mail fun and relevant to today’s kids, yes, but are also motivated by something deeper. This project seeks to bridge the gap between technologies of many times, bringing parents closer to their kids, grandparents closer to their grandchildren. We hope that you’ll help us turn that dream into a reality! Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got some digital ducks to shoot.