At one time, being a tech enthusiast meant you were part of a niche. People would assume tech fans were engineers or academicians, thanks in part to the enigmatic technobabble that went over the heads of mere mortals. But over time, things changed. The evolution of design, in both hardware and software, as well as competitive price points, have enabled technology to connect with the mainstream in more ways than ever before.
What all of this means is that more of us are packing gear, at home, on the road, for work and for play. We may focus on, even obsess about, how we change and advance our technologies, but there’s also another important aspect to bear in mind — how these gadgets change us.
A Historical Look
All we need to do is take a look at our recent past for some insight. Before the telephone, radio and television came along, connecting with others took great effort. People dressed to go out and meet others — you’d never see someone in their pj bottoms at the corner store — or bust out the pen and ink to write out a letter that would take weeks to arrive. And so historically, the human experience was rather isolationist. But the invention and proliferation of these three gadgets shattered the alienation. Feeling lonely? You can bring others into your home via radio and TV, or mull over a problem with a sibling over the phone, as it’s happening. The genius of these products was that they were simple to use, and so everyone used them. And it changed the face of our culture.
While we’re digging around in the past, let’s stop and take a look at the VCR. Remember those? (Some of you tech historians might even still have one lying around.) Today’s YouTube, online-streaming, Sling-viewing, TiVo-watching culture owes a lot to that humble gadget.
We could record content, even when we weren’t home, and watch it whenever we wanted or share it with friends. What innovative concepts! But there were some hiccups. First there was the ’70s era BetaMax vs. VHS war, which left consumers unsure of which way to throw their money. Then, once the VHS came out as the decisive winner, people still couldn’t figure out how to program them. And so it took a while for it to gain traction. What a relief for some when DVDs usurped them (but only for some — others were miffed when vast movie collections were suddenly obsolete).
Now there’s a classic example of how not to roll out a new technology. Sure, it eventually became popular, but even today, there are still people who eye Blu-ray with some distrust, thanks to this past experience.
And that was the dilemma: How can a value-oriented society adapt to changing technologies? The moment the average consumer committed to a pricey device, it was outdated. This, more than anything else, was what kept the budget-conscious masses at bay back then. (It still does, in some respects.)
So what happened? The ’80s. The whole “Greed is good” thing swept in, and before you knew it, technology had some cachet.
Upwardly mobile people considered phone bags/bricks and VCRs as signs of affluence. Computers, which only came as huge mainframes at one time, became popular as more desktop versions rolled out. (Even Apple haters have to give credit to Steve Jobs for this one.) And more children learned how to use them in school, while other lucky (rich) kids actually got them at home. This was also the popular era for Ataris, ColecoVision and the like.
Suddenly, mainstream consumers — value-minded people who had once prized quality and longevity for their dollars — were salivating over gadgets with a shorter shelf life. This one decade birthed more early adopters than ever before.
When the ’90s rolled in, and massive cell phones slimmed down, home video recording became less expensive, and computers didn’t have to put you in the poor house, it pretty thoroughly ingrained tech into our culture. We were ripe for the picking by the time iPods, Flip, Xboxes, smartphones and other consumer gadgets would later enter the scene — and further entrench us in the digital life.
At this point, I’d say the tech lifestyle is pretty ubiquitous. Is there anyone under 60 who doesn’t own at least something with a logic board? Practically everyone has a mobile device, computer, DVD or Blu-Ray player, CD or MP3 player, gaming system, audio system or kitchen gadget. And we use them (boy, do we ever) to work, play, educate, socialize, create — live.
In this era, the age-old questions still apply: Who are we? What are we about? How do we connect, to ourselves and to one another? That’s what this article is about. As your new Lifestyle Editor, that’s what I’m all about. As time goes on, we’ll be taking a look at the modern tech lifestyle from all angles — from figuring out how to get the most from our gadgets, to how our tools and toys influence various aspects of our lives. It’s going to be a fun (and hopefully informative) journey.
And if it’s not — well, I’m sure you guys will tell me.
If there are particular topics you want to delve into, or story ideas you want to kick in, let me know in the comments!