On my 40th birthday in June this year, my mother called me, and I was at the sheer edge of phone reception, having decided to trek to Yellowstone National Park—where everything around me would be older than me, and by a lot. She was really cheery, Mom was, and she said, with a busload of glee, that the next 40 years go by a lot faster than the first 40. She’s a dear.
To round out the context for this post, I’ll turn to my work-in-progress, a novel in which a lot of the action takes place in the 1920s and early 1980s. Thinking back, to my teenage years, we lived in a whole different world, and in many ways, technology is at the center of what’s changed since the start of this century. On one level, people show the same adaptability no matter their circumstances, and on a whole host of other levels, we are altered by the new progressions we bring into our world. It is pretty incomprehensible to think of a world with no antibiotics, for example, and now that we have them, we think of disease in entirely different ways than we did before. For example:
The iPod, released in October 2001—In the midst of ducking terrorist infected mail and driving past the crumbled Pentagon on my way to work, Apple redefined how people listen to music, and began a multi-billion dollar resurgence in people’s love of all things pretty and gadgety. It was an awful moment of our limitations and opportunities in one complicated year. And at the tail end of 2010, it still reigns over all the other, wannabe, music players.
Adaptable, low-cost glasses—I read with fascination this story about glasses that use a liquid lens so that they can adjust to any prescription. Their inventor, Josh Silver of Oxford University, wants to put 100 million into the hands of people in developing nations, every year. It’s such a simple solution that it boggles my mind that nobody came up with this earlier. Silver’s adaptive glasses company now works in partnership with humanitarians in several countries to help people see better.
Wii, November 2006—The marketing campaign that led Nintendo’s new product was inventive and clever, and those people patted themselves on the back for creating such a buzz. They were the Cabbage Patch Kids of that holiday shopping season, and here I thought we’d all gotten past grabbing each other’s hair in the Toys R Us. A scant 4 years later, Wii is the top world best seller among gaming consoles, and Playstation and XBox were at it long before the kinetic-driven system came along. Part and parcel with its sales is its multi-generation appeal, and when I took a cruise to Alaska in 2009, I blinked to see that there was a Wii on board. How else to have a virtual bowling competition? I’m not a fan of some of the attachments, like the Wii Fit board, but again, Nintendo’s marketers are very smart people.
Toyota Prius, released worldwide in 2001—Toyota’s recent troubles with acceleration aside, they changed people’s opinions about the possibility for hybrid vehicles in the manner of a very few years. In an American market of Hummers, Navigators, and behemoth trucks with towing capacities few people actually require, many folks scoffed about the chances the Prius had to be a legitimate contender in the market, and their price tag was beyond the reach of many an environmentally conscious consumer. But I doubt that without the Prius we would have the Chevy Volt, soon to reach stores for $350 monthly payments.
WiFi, wide coverage in mid-aughts—Carnegie Mellon was ahead of the curve by making their campus WiFi in 1994, but hey, I was a Syracuse University student and we weren’t doing anything that interesting at the time, okay? Don’t rub it in. Before wireless fidelity was all over urban and suburban communities, people needed to have expensive cellular phone service plans if they wanted Internet access, and they weren’t rewarded with much, as those signals were often choppy or slow to do things like download a picture of one’s new pet. I could tell we’d become quite dependent on an endless signal when a programmer’s WiFi virus—intended to bring attention to vulnerabilities in how people linked to WiFi signals—caused a stir all over the Web, and millions of people downloaded patches in the following week.
Social networking Web sites—Classmates.com really missed the boat, thinking people would pay to rehookup with old high school students, when the truth was, those friendships weren’t worth a monthly fee. Friendster, MySpace, LiveJournal, all pale in comparison to the 800-pound gorilla that is Facebook. None of those other sites have a movie made about their founder, after all. I’m looking at you, Biz Stone. Okay, Twitter is part of the social networking empire, I agree. And there are scores of future dissertations out there just waiting to be written about how these systems have forever affected human consciousness and sense of community.
The iPhone, released June 2007—I triple-checked the release date, because I couldn’t fathom that the iPhone has only been around for a few years, but it’s true. Before the iPhone folks carried a PDA, a cell phone, a DVD player, and a music player, and then like a mad wizard Steve Jobs kablammed them all into one device. One device. Everything Apple had done up until that point—iTunes, downloadable apps onto their operating system, experimental tablet interfaces in the 1990s—all of it synthesized into a tidy, exquisitely advertised device, and once again, all of the early adopters drowned in their own drool. While the iPad uses a gorgeously large screen, it’s the iPhone with the camera and mobile phone technology—which soon won’t be limited to AT&T’s flukey network—that revolutionized our expectations for connectivity.