Entering the age of the little black box

Patiently perusing a pile of press releases that had found their way to my moss-encrusted desk, I recently learned about an electronics firm in Southern California that’s been developing a high-tech device to help parents find out exactly what their teens have been doing on those periodic but oh-so-necessary drives to “the library.”

(You remember how it goes: “Dad, can I have the car? I’ve gotta go to the library to check out ‘Plutarch’s Lives’ before I become, like, really ignorant and flunk algebra. Shouldn’t take more than six or seven hours – I’ll drive real slow…”)

Similar to commercial airline flight recorders, these little black boxes will someday be available for installation on the family sedan to record how fast teens have been driving, how hard they’ve been braking, how radically they’ve been turning and, presumably, if they’ve been the subject of a high-speed law enforcement pursuit across three states.

After studious teens have dutifully returned from the library, inquisitive parents will be able to download data from the black box into their home computers and find out why Becky Sue and Bubba had to drive to the library in Napaskiak, Alaska, to secure a copy of “Plutarch’s Lives.”

And how quickly they drove to get there…

Eventually, the black box may be linked to a Global Positioning System so 21st century parents can find out exactly where their son or daughter is violating 25 or 30 sections of the state vehicle code on their purported trip to the library.

Admittedly, the whole concept sounds rather intriguing but I wonder how necessary it really is.

When I was making frequent trips to the library during my somewhat chaotic high school years, my dad somehow always managed to determine if I had strayed from my stated destination (or ever got there).

Maybe it was returning from the library with 425 extra miles on the odometer. Or the telltale steam belching from under the hood. Or the occasional article of feminine clothing caught under the armrest.

(“Gee, I dunno where those came from, Dad – maybe they’re the librarian’s…”)

My dad also had the uncanny ability to gauge how quickly a new set of tires went bald after only two or three trips to the aforementioned library.

Then there was his long-range intelligence organization.

Like a CIA station chief in eastern Europe, Dad had clandestine operatives in every corner of our small Northern California town.

If the druggist saw somebody who looked suspiciously like me spinning doughnuts in the funeral home parking lot – on the way to the library, of course – Dad was sure to hear about the sighting.

If the local grocer observed me hanging out in the parking lot of Eddie’s Northside Market with a trio of hooligans collectively known as Those Damn King Boys, Dad would know about it before we could even begin to plot the overthrow of civilization.

And if any of the three professional drunk guys at the Black Watch Tavern observed my dad’s car anywhere but at the library they were sure to put in a call between boilermakers.

A black box would have been a blessing compared with the small town surveillance network with which I had to contend every time I drove off to the, er, library…

Originally published August 25, 2002