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Dave Wilson

A Tech-Laden Drive in Search of America

November 16, 2000|Dave Wilson | dave.wilson@latimes.com

We were somewhere north of Barstow in the middle of the desert when the tech really took effect. As the sun dipped out of sight in the rear-view mirror, I powered up my Cadillac's night vision, and the road ahead became clear.

Our wheels were loaded down with every conceivable gizmo. Game Boys, DVDs, MP3s--the opiates of the 21st century. We even had a bread maker and a microwave humming and thumping in the back seat. But this night vision stuff was truly mind-altering. Instead of being able to see the couple of hundred feet before me illuminated by the headlamps, a small heads-up display shimmered on the windshield and offered a ghostly picture of wide-open America.

We were driving to Las Vegas, my buddy and me, in search of the modern American Dream--technology that works and makes your life better. We hoped to find it at Comdex, the computer industry's weeklong celebration of the digital revolution.

Thirty years ago, a burnout named Hunter S. Thompson made this same trek in a Chevy convertible loaded with every drug he could stuff into himself. He too was looking for the American Dream in Vegas. He thought--heck, a lot of people thought--that chemicals would expand our minds and play a critical role in what America was all about.

He was wrong.

The drug culture peaked and then began a long, slow fade to become just a little freak show as most of us learned to just say, "No, thank you, it interferes with my Prozac." Drugs--at least the illegal ones--had no place in the American Dream.

Then the '90s came. And what drugs were to the '60s, tech was to the '90s--a gateway to a better, smarter future. But tech ain't going away, brother. It's here to stay. And it will change our lives in ways few of us can imagine. You can't get away from tech, not even in the middle of the freaking desert.

Let's take the Caddy. It has all the usual goodies, such as a high-end sound system and a CD jukebox, but it's also got a sonar sensor that beeps when you're about to back into something. In addition, it has one outstanding set of cupholders. And some fuzzy dice hanging from the rear-view mirror. Well, the dice didn't come with the car, but they seemed an appropriate addition.

It is the night vision thing, however, that really rocks my world. It looks like it belongs in some armored military vehicle. Live images of the road in front of the car dance in black and white across a small portion of the windshield, except things are reversed as in a negative. You can see right through the picture, like those little network logos in the corner of your television screen.

We carried tons of other gadgets with us. We watched Will Smith whup some aliens in "Independence Day" on a Panasonic DVD player with a 7-inch LCD screen. We had Game Boys with a link cable. We snapped pictures with a Nikon Coolpix 990 digital camera. We carried an HP Jornada 540 hand-held and a Compaq iPaq with a flashreader sleeve to watch short movies from Atom Films. For much of the trip, we listened to tunes encoded in the MP3 format stored on Iomega's HipZip product, played through the car's stereo system via the cassette adapter for the Philips RUSH MP3 player.

"I've come to look for America," sang a digitized Simon and Garfunkel as we all floated through the desert to our destiny. Tech is good. Tech is great. Let us thank it for this day.

Except the parts that didn't work right.

Take our attempts to cook in the car.

There's nothing like the smell of a new car. Except fresh baked bread. Strangely, baking bread in a new car doesn't smell all that great. And it doesn't work that well either.

The problem was power. This issue was not, however, related to the DeVille, which has at least three cigarette lighters. But we went through three power inverters, devices designed to convert the 12 volts or so that come from the lighter socket into enough of the proper kind of juice to power a small appliance.

Like, you would think, a microwave or a bread maker. But you would be wrong.

Our appliances tended to die in mid-cookery. All three inverters claimed they could put out sustained power of more than 200 watts, far more than what our appliances claimed they needed. Our guess is we were light on the amps coming out of the cord, but we honestly don't know because all the specs on our gear talked about was wattage.

My bread-making machine got through part of the cycle three times before it gave up and turned itself off, a victim of poor power. Likewise, our microwave lacked the power to do more than pop but a single kernel of corn, which we clearly heard and which led to much chest thumping and whoo-hoooing. But that was the only sound of deliciousness that emanated from the nuke box during the trip.

All in all, the cooking thing was a bust.

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