Sunday, April 22, 2012

Generation X&Y: The Analog-Digital Straddlers

This may never happen again.

As children my cousins and I built castles, houses and fortresses out of couch cushions. We played make-believe games like Office-Office, House-House and Doctor-Doctor (or a variation, Nurse-Nurse). We would put together props - secretary stations for Office, clean-up kits for House, doctor bags (complete with fake syringes) for Doctor/Nurse. I even put homemade library cards on our books when we wanted to play Library-Library. And it was always more fun to play the subordinate part - the maid instead of the house owner or the secretary instead of the boss, because you got to play with the tools. And whomever was the guest got to choose their part first, because that is what we were taught it meant to be a good host.

We used to spend hours playing board games. Each of our houses had, besides the usual Barbies, Cabbage Patch Kids and My Little Ponies, entire closets of board games. My family was especially into educational board games; some of our favorites were By Jove and Wildlife Adventure.

Even more popular than games at our house were books. My siblings and I grew up with the children's classics - Green Eggs & Ham, Sylvester and the Magic Pebble, Stone Soup, Tikki Tikki Tembo, The Very Hungry Caterpillar, Harold and the Purple Crayon, Goodnight Moon, and so many more. We eventually moved up to bigger-kid books, like The Berenstein Bears, then Cam Jansen and Nate the Great. We soon reached Nancy Drew and The Three Investigators. All hard copies.

We watched TV of course, but mom limited our viewing hours by putting our only set in their room. Episodes of our favorite TV shows like Jem and the Holograms were limited, so channels replayed season after season and we were happy to watch them over and over.

Movies were only available as rentals from our neighborhood shop. I remember running my finger up and down wooden shelves with slots perfectly sized for Betamax tapes, later resized for VHS tapes. Eventually the shelves turned into racks for huge laserdiscs slotted into cardboard covers housed in Yves Vincent-branded plastic wrappers. I still remember the smell and sound of plastic hitting plastic that the laserdiscs would make as we browsed through the available titles. It would be so hard to choose which one (or two, if dad was feeling generous) cartoon or movie we were going to take home. And because we had only a few discs at a time we would often watch Sleeping Beauty, Snow White, The King & I, The Sound of Music, My Fair Lady, Singin' in the Rain, Land Before Time, Back to the Future, Star Wars and Indiana Jones again and again, memorizing songs and dialogue.

The music I grew up listening to came on cassette tapes before we had CDs - Mariah Carey, Janet Jackson, Broadway musicals and Disney soundtracks. Dad would warn us not to fast-forward or rewind too much or else risk damaging the tape. But I learned how to compile my favorite tracks into blank cassettes, to avoid having to FF through individual albums.

Photos were taken in batches of 24 or 36, and we would watch how many pictures we were taking because we might run out of film. On family vacations abroad we made sure to pack extra rolls, but with my friends I was limited to my parents' extras. It took 3 days then eventually a few hours to get photos developed, and friends and relatives made copies via negatives.

I remember getting our first computer. I learned to type on a DOS-powered word processor (no selection, just arrow keys and backspace). Our very first game was Dig Dug. My mom sent me to computer classes during the summers that made me feel so advanced when we started using PCs in school. We saved our work on big floppy diskettes that we kept in boxes in our den. I remember when 3.5" discs came out, that I carried in individual hard, clear plastic cases in my uniform pocket, impressed by the 1.4MB capacity. In high school we hooked up to the web, with a connection that we had to reserve among family members because it used one of our phone lines. Around that time mIRC then ICQ became popular, which is when I learned to Alt-Tab because I wasn't allowed to chat. I remember the first batch of cellphones, all Nokia 5110s with LCD displays and the first phone game Snake, and the 3210 I got for my high school graduation.

By the time I was in college Internet research was a basic tool and laptops quickly became popular among students. Digital cameras were all the rage and soon mp3 players were must-haves.

Today I carry an four screens with me everywhere - work phone, personal phone, iPod, iPad. When I travel I also bring my Kindle and a camera, which adds two screens to the running total. Whether at home or at work I'm usually in front of a laptop. The members of our family all watch digital TV episodes and even my dad is slowly digitizing his CD collection. My brother is s gamer and my six-year-old niece is an iPad addict.

Our generation is in a unique position. We were born into an analog time, but the emergence of digital technology is woven into our adolescent and teenage years. While our parents and grandparents will always feel a level of discomfort with digital technology, and our children will feel completely at home with multiple screens and a barrage of content, we are the only group to straddle both worlds. We remember one but still stand a chance of feeling completely at home in the next.

We will be the last group who will appreciate the capabilities of technology vis-a-vis our analog experience - gigabytes of space versus the 1.4 MBs we were once afforded, wireless access over dial-up, app libraries instead of the one Snake game. But for the children and teens of today and tomorrow, these new paradigms will be basic expectations - screens everywhere, being always-on, information in real-time and at our fingertips.


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