Atari 2600 Entertainment Console

Oh Yeah, Baby! Look at that Veneer!

The other day, my 14-year-old daughter and I were driving to school, passing the time listening to “Hey Ya!” by Outkast. When it got to the part that says, “Shake it like a Polaroid picture,” something dawned on me. I reached over and turned down the volume, and posed a question:

“Do you even know what a Polaroid picture is?”

“No.” The blank look on her face (though unfortunately common to teenagers) said more than her response. I then spent the next five minutes explaining what an impressive development Polaroid photos were at a time when you had to take your film in to get it developed, and how people would shake them to get them to develop even faster. It then dawned on me: I could give a long list of technologies that I’m nostalgic for. But things move so fast now, kids don’t even have the time to develop an emotional attachment to them. I’m only 34 years old, and there has been monumental development in tech during that time. Do you remember:

  • Having friends whose parents still had black and white TVs?
  • The leap from broadcast TV to cable?
  • The advent of VCRs (let alone DVDs)?
  • The time you got your first microwave?
  • Small floppies replacing big ones?
  • Hard drives becoming standard on computers?
  • CD-ROMs replacing floppy drives?
  • Computer graphics that consisted of only 4 colors? 16 colors? 32 Colors? 256 Colors?
  • MS-Dos?
  • The significance of 640K?
  • BBSes?
  • 2400Bps modems? 9600? 14.4K? 28.8? 56.6? The switch to DSL, then Cable, then Fiber Optic connections?
  • Prodigy? Compuserve? AOL as an online portal? Juno? NetZero?
  • Telnet? IRC?
  • The first ISP in your area to offer a real internet connection to the World Wide Web?
  • The WWW when it was still mostly just a collection of unadorned hyperlinks?
  • Rotary phones?
  • Pulse-dial touch pad phones?
  • Old-school cordless phones (with the big antenna)?
  • The first time you saw a cell phone?
  • The first time you knew someone who had a cell phone?
  • The first time you bought a cell phone?
  • The first time your cell phone became Internet capable?
  • Atari, ColecoVision, Commodore64, Tandy, Amiga?
  • The enormous leap from Atari > Nintendo 8 bit?
  • The enormous leap from Nintendo 8 bit > Super Nintendo and Sega Genesis
  • The idiotic purchase (which I made, natch) which was the Sega CD?
  • The first time you saw real 3D graphics in a console game?
  • The first time you saw real 3D graphics on a game you played ON YOUR PHONE?!?!

This list is, of course, only partial. All of these changes have happened in my lifetime, and most of them have happened within the last 10-20 years. Kids that are in high school today don’t remember a time when high-grade technology wasn’t ubiquitous. They don’t remember life without the Internet. They never had to understand the Dewey Decimal system well enough to look up a book in a library card catalog. They don’t even know what it’s like to try to figure things out in a world without Google!

Space Invaders (1980)

Screenshot of Space Invaders (1980) - Taken From Stella, The Atari Emulator

And since the saturation of technology in society is so complete, they don’t have time to get attached to certain platforms or devices. 30 years from now, do you think people will wear shirts with the Xbox 360 or PS3 logo on them? Not a chance. But just last weekend, I saw an Atari logo t-shirt in the graphic tees section of Target. Atari was cool so long ago that they thought it was a good idea to put faux wood paneling on it. How is it still part of pop culture? Because it was all we had. It was new, unique, and exciting. And it didn’t get replaced by something else for quite a while. There really was no such thing as console wars back then. Moore’s Law hadn’t really kicked in to high gear. Nobody was imagining the kind of computing power we’d have in our toys in the 21st century, let alone in actual computers.

It makes me sad to think that generations only a little bit younger than my own take the breathtaking speed of technological advancement for granted. They don’t recognize the sound of a modem handshake, and they have no idea how thrilling it was when the public Internet was young. For heaven’s sake, most of them have never even seen, let alone used, a pay phone. Everything is different. And it will continue to change at an astonishing pace.

I’m glad I grew up when I did. I’m glad I saw this all unfold – slowly, awkwardly, attaining grace and proficiency over time. I’m glad I knew what it was like when every processor upgrade meant a noticeable boost in speed, and you measured RAM in kilobytes, then megabytes, never dreaming of what would come and how it would blow your mind. And now with the advent of advanced robotics, nanotechnology, exotic materials, solid state devices, and more, I’m certain that I’ll see an entirely new revolution of new science unveiled before another 20 years go by. I’m happy to know that through it all, I’ll never lose my sense of wonder as I watch technology progress. It’ll always be new and exciting, with a sense that science fiction is becoming science fact, right before my eyes.

It’s a pretty cool time to be alive.

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