Though a straight line appears to be the shortest distance between 2 points, life has a way of confounding geography. Often it is the dalliances and the detours that define us. There are no maps to guide our most important searches; we must rely on hope, chance, intuition and a willingness to be surprised.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

A Gen-X-er's Take on Tech...

So I got a new iPhone 3GS. And its an incredible piece of kit. It's hard to resist the temptation to go on about it at some length. But how dull would that be... There must be thousands of 3GS reviews out there already. Dull, dull, dull.

So instead, I got to thinking, how great is technology today? Is this really a life-changing piece of kit, or just another toy? Is it even conceivable that this could be laughably out of date in just a few years...?

As a Gen-X-er of a certain age, (old enough to remember the Sony Walkman, young enough to be uber-enthusiastic about new kit today) maybe I'm uniquely placed to get some perspective on this wonder-gadget with a cheeky wee look back on the technological hits and misses in my Gen-X life.

1983 Nintendo Game and Watch – Donkey Kong Jr -HIT!-

For me, this is where it all started. Nintendo have had a long history – from making a primitive kind of pub pinball machine in the 19th century (yep, Nintendo are older than Winston Churchill and the penny-farthing) to the mass-mass-market fun of the Nintendo Wii. But I will always be nostalgic for the Game and Watch. The first hand-held video-game system, it was essentially just a large LCD- watch style screen (hence the name), limiting game play to platform-games and a very small set of possible actions. But it had that ingredient essential to all great games – an increasing level of challenge to match increasing expertise, and was thus perfectly addictive.

I still have mine, though its whereabouts haven’t been definitely confirmed for years (probably under a mountain of lego somewhere), and so I became all dewy-eyed when I found the above picture on the net. The hours and hours of fun the 9-year-old me had with that thing. And yet it could have all been so different. Within hours of buying it on holiday in Spain (I was quite possibly driving my folks bonkers on that holiday), I was having palpitations as it appeared to have packed in on the flight home. Little did I know that 1984's LCD panels just weren't happy in a pressurised air-cabin. A major tearful episode was avoided when the game started belting out its zippy, blippy little tune (haven’t Nintendo always been great at that?) back on terra firma.

1984 ZX Spectrum + -HIT!-

The warbly tapes. The dodgy sound and graphics. The bizarre but fantastic games (was it just me, or was Ant Attack genuinely scary?). And nothing was more memorable from those first gaming days than Daley Thomson’s Decathlon. Battering that keyboard for all it was worth (all RSI, no Wii) and then hitting the spacebar to throw a javelin (a single line of pixels) through the air, where it would hang for about 3 minutes like a cruise missile, before landing on an unyielding and unconvincing electric-green square… many a sunny afternoon was wasted on that one.

This was the pinnacle of computer game creativity – there were literally thousands of games, you could even write your own in your bedroom – and, on the creativity front at least, its been a mostly bobbly downhill slope from there. To think that Sir Clive Sinclair then made that obscenely shaped plastic-go-kart-death-trap thingy and then turned into a recluse(ish). If only they’d had reality tv in the 80s he could have carved out an alternative career as a bearded pantomime dame…

1987 Hitachi Ghettoblaster -HIT!-

For about 2 months before Christmas 1987, only one subject could occupy my mind for any length of time – portable hifi. And whilst these-days ‘portable hifi’ might mean something you can stick in your jeans pocket, back then it was something you could barely lift above your head. Undeterred, I would pour over the pages of Kay’s Catalogue, comparing features such as auto-reverse, graphic equaliser (3 or 5 band, 7 band if you were especially posh), bass boost and detachable speakers, this latter feature being something I was especially excited about, for a reason that I can no longer fathom. They were plasticky, they had crap radio reception, buttons frequently fell off at the least provocation… why is it a hit? Well it meant I could play music in my room, and that was revolutionary for me. Since then I’ve been a music freak. Job done.

1990 Panasonic G40 Barcode Reading VHS Recorder -Miss-

Yes, the history of 1980s technology disasters has effectively boiled down to VHS beating up Betamax, and yes we were a Betamax family (wasn’t it great to catch the cat out with that top-loading mechanism?) but that story has been told too many times. Instead, my mention of video-recording tech has to be an example of a laughably bad solution to a (semi) legendary problem.

The fact that not being able to program your video recorder has become synonymous in the English-speaking world with having problems with new technology shows what a major problem this was in the 1980s. But it was a problem that was never going to be solved by scanning barcodes. Not a sensible solution. Obviously. Except that, for a while, all the major VCR manufacturers (including Panasonic) wanted us to think it might be.

Ok, this wasn’t strictly 'my' techno miss, it was one for my parents, but it’s too weird not to mention. Come on – a giant sheet of barcodes where you scan one barcode for the channel, one for the day, one for the start time, one for the length of the program… are you kidding?? After recording just 4 episodes of Baywatch (well come on! what teenage boy didn’t???), I felt skilled enough to give a supermarket checkout lady a run for her money. What was wrong with just typing in numbers? Nothing apparently, as barcode technology was quietly dumped a couple of years after my folks bought the model pictured above. And that’s the barcode scanning pen on the right, which incidentally doubled up as a fairly weak laser-pointer that could be used to distract yourself - and passing drivers - when you realised that you’d accidentally recorded Murder She Wrote instead of Robin of Sherwood.

1996 Sony MiniDiscman - HIT! (and Miss)-

The end of my unwavering faith in technology – a format that I thought would change the world (You can record in digital! You can skip tracks!) but boomed for roughly 6 months, before fading painfully and gradually like the career of an ex-Spice Girl. Even the combination of my unfailing enthusiasm, and an appearance in the Matrix - the most fashionably futuristic movie of the 90s - couldn't stop its demise. I held out much longer than I should have done – though not as long as my friend Graeme has with cassettes, come on Graeme, 2009 mate, 2009! – and I still have about 200 of the little discs gathering dust in my mum and dad’s attic, with titles like ‘Best of Indie CDs!’ and ‘Stone Roses Second Coming’ barely visible in fading biro on their little sticky labels.

But I loved them, and their demise meant I would never fully trust the technology industry again…

1997 Sony Playstation -HIT!-

Yes that’s right – just “Sony Playstation”, not PS1 or playstation 1, and certainly not PS2 or PS3. This was the original. And it kicked Nintendo, Sega and Atari in the nuts and ran away with an entire industry. How? Simply by being a little cheaper, better in almost every area, and most importantly absolutely-top in the fun stakes. And never mind that it looked like a set of bathroom scales. Sony would later undergo collective amnesia in launching the over-priced, under-loved PS3, which has given away that colossal market advantage and apparently cost them all the profits they made on the PSOne and PS2. But who cares. Playstation was uber-cool in ’97 with games like Doom, Resident Evil and Wipeout, the latter featuring songs by Leftfield and the Chemical Brothers - who would have thought it… a video game… with a cool pop-culture tie-in!

2002 & 2006 Xbox & Xbox 360 -Miss-

Microsoft tried to repeat Sony’s industry-grabbing game-play in 2001, but the Xbox (in spite of having just about the best video game ever in Halo) never quite cut-it. I didn’t keep either Xbox1 or Xbox2 for any length of time. Maybe they were trying too hard. More likely the games were just too safe and same-y. And if the Playstation One was a set of bathroom scales, these were the pug-ugly plastic boxes to break those scales.

But I do have one very funny tale to tell from this. Apparently when my dad told my mum that I had bought the original Xbox, her reaction was “A sex box? What does he want with one of those?”. Yep, hilarious. But why didn’t she ask what a sex box was??? Mysterious. Lol.

2007 Ipod Classic 80Gb -Hit!-

After many years of going French and buying Archos mp3 players, I eventually succumbed to Apple as recently as 2007. Within days I realised why Apple were able to charge more, and for a superficially similar product, with apparently less functionality. It… just…works. It does everything so well, and so intuitively. And of course it comes in such a sexy package.

I loved my Ipod… but I wasn’t IN love with it… and then I got my iPhone. (lmao)

So there we have it – my entirely selective, one-man history of technology. And one last point – anyone who says that the old days were better just needs to spend 10 minutes with my iPhone (if you can prise it from my cold, dead hands). That we might soon have such technology would have been an incredible idea, in fact unthinkable, just half a dozen years ago. And there's no doubt this gadget would have been like an alien visitation to the nine-year old lad with his Donkey Kong Junior Game and Watch.

With this rate of progress there is surely so much to look forward to in the next few years. Might they even get round to inventing… …a sex box?


Adam and Jo said...

this is one of your best blogs ever! Telesex sounds like something out of VIZ magazine! (Do you remember that as well?) the problem with technology is that it has undoubtedly outrun man's morality, and unfortunately most men already have a sex-box in the form of their computer, and the internet. Someone once told me that 90% of internet hits are to pornographic sites, and that 75% of men in the Church regularly accessed porn on their computers. All this does is make men dissatisfied with 'normal' women, and also causes the way men view women to become as a commodity or sex object. Roll back the clock on that one. My morality is only just in the lead!!

Calum said...

Remember it??? Its still going strong! And you can do the BBC quiz to celebrate this week's 30th anniversary!

Cheers for the comments Adam! Looking forward to seeing you in Feb/March.