The Future Was Now

In the summer of 1988, my parents bought a Chevy Suburban and drove our whole family down to Walt Disney World (the only time we ever went). My dad worked for GM at the time and so when we got to the Epcot Center, we got to cut in line to the now closed, World of Motion ride. It was a view of the future. Or should I say, a view of a possible future – one that mostly hasn’t happened – but that’s not what this post is about.

Rebecca Murphey, a JavaScript engineer at Bocoup, wrote in her blog about how her dad bought one of the first personal computers:

“In 1982, Timex came out with the Timex Sinclair TS-1000…the computer, a few times thicker than the original iPad but with about the same footprint, cost $99.95.”

My dad bought one too and I remember having to hook it up to a special data tape player/recorder that acted as the ‘hard drive’. It’s what loaded and recorded changes to programs that displayed on the screen. I remember piecing the parts together and waiting for it to appear on the black and white television screen. We could load BASIC and type in commands, but we didn’t do much more than that. This post isn’t really about my early exposure to technology, it’s more about the man who exposed me to it.

While we didn’t have humanoid robots in our kitchen, we had dishwashers who washed our dishes for us – and a furnace that detected a sudden change in temperature and automatically adjusted accordingly. My dad grew up in a house with no running water. He took a bath in a metal tub in the middle of the kitchen next to the fire-burning stove. He used a Sears catalog for toilet paper in the outhouse out back – yet he was the only person in his class to build an automobile from spare parts.

Silly Robot

I can only imagine my son re-discovering a vehicle from today, trying to understand this “hard app” (car radio) he found. What is it like growing up with a computer in every room and in every pocket? What is it like to always be on the Internet, always knowing where everyone is and what everyone is doing? What is it like to have your entire childhood documented in status messages, online galleries, and Youtube channels? When I went to high school, we weren’t even allowed to carry beepers.

I can only imagine how no running water, building your own car, learning how to program, and buying one of the first personal computers can shape the way you teach your children about technology. And I can only imagine how growing up with Timex Sinclair TS-1000’s, Atari 2600’s, Nintendo NES’, Windows 3.1, Netscape, Winsock, Windows 95, Nokia Cellphones, College Club, Myspace, and finally Facebook can change how I teach my children about technology. I worry that technology enables too much using and not enough doing. That’s part of what this blog is about – giving back to what I’ve learned from the Internet – and my dad.

The 8-Bit Generation

The 8-Bit Generation are those born in or around 1980 who knew a time before Nintendo, Nickelodeon, and personal computers.  Their favorite video games are The Legend of Zelda, Super Mario Bros, and Final Fantasy.  Their technology’s performance could still be influenced by blowing harder on the controller or by demagnetizing the tape deck before use.  If you said, “I don’t know,” you were likely to get slime dumped on your head.  In 1986 Double Dare debuted and the Space Shuttle Challenger blew up.  We knew technology could fail us and that we were all still human after all, but we all still had land lines and it was expensive to call long distance.  900 numbers ruled late night television when Nick at Night was still playing My Three Sons.  Nowadays it plays past episodes of Full House, the same show that played when the 8-Bit Generation was in elementary school.

Some elementary schools had Apple II’s, but by the time they got to middle school, public schools had begun buying personal computers (PCs) running DOS and the first versions of Microsoft Office.  By high school they would have PCs running Windows 95 and the Internet.  They would be the last generation to grow up without having the Internet their entire high school career and the last generation to not have cell phones in the class room.  The closest any of the 8-bit generation had to a cell phone in high school was a beeper because most cell phone’s batteries were so large you could only use them in your car.  Most Internet connections at home were dial-up and AOL ruled the land with it’s floppy disks.  The first CD-R drives cost $400, more than some computers cost today.

The 8-Bit Generation went to college in the middle of the Dot Com Crash and 9/11.  They graduated with less hope of finding a job than their immediate predecessors, Generation X.  They still dressed like they did in high school.  They think a Polo over a t-shirt and some stone-washed jeans is cool and if you swap the pants for some khakis and add a sweater they’re dressed up.  They believe white shoes are for dorks and prefer leather shoes like Dockers or Doc Marten’s.  They think of Angelina Jolie more of a Hacker than of Salt. They believe the future is possible and that it is here.  They don’t want to work, but they will.  Not everything was handed to them, but they did have it easier than their parents, but their children may not.  Those children, the sons and daughters of the 8-Bit Generation are now in kindergarten and elementary school.  They are using iPhones and iPads to communicate and play games.  They’ve never known anything other than always-on broadband Internet, streaming movies, video games on cell phones, and text messaging (they don’t even know or care what AOL is).  They are the 64-Bit Generation.

Other Signs that the 8-Bit Generation is Now Running the Show

This year (2010) we’ve seen Toyota recall vehicles for sticky accelerators and engines that randomly stop.  We’ve seen cereal from Kellog’s and medicine from Johnson and Johnson recalled for weird smells and tastes. And we’ve seen a steady stream of just downright bad-for-you stuff from China including cadmium-covered glasses at McDonalds.  All signs point to the Nintendo generation being in charge of quality control.  With their “80% is good enough” mentality, most of the stuff we drive, eat, and drink out of is good alright, but it’s that last 20% that is questionable.  Is this a sign of things to come?  What happens when the 8-bit generation takes over the power grid, the water system, and air traffic controls? I guess having power for 80% of the day is better than Baghdad, and that’s good enough for me.