Nostalgic For the Future I Once Had



The Thrill of Self-Discovery
In San Francisco, Some Time in 1997


Me: Not an "early adopter" in a certain sense of that tech-related term. But to leave it at that would give you the wrong impression of me. A distinction needs to be made, and in the following few words, I'll try to make it.

ANALOG KID

The expression early adopter leaves a (mixed but mostly) bad taste in my mouth, evoking a negative connotation -- born from numerous wealthy, spendthrift fathers of friends of mine, who clearly had more money than time to spend with their children. I would never see the father, but the son or daughter -- my friend -- in a number of strikingly similar cases, would invariably invite me 'round the house. Vast open interiors, devoid of actual human presence but teeming with expensive items that were clearly present for a whim's sake. I would, again, invariably be brought to the office-room full of gadgets. The expensive items, each touting a hopeful future if only their technological ideas would be permanently adopted, shouted out to me in a silent voice that I can only now really interpret: These fathers had no time for their children, only their jobs. And the multi-thousand-dollar trinkets (which is all they really were under the gloss and the hype) were, each, more of a child to this breadwinning-yet-still-absent father -- much more than his actual children. My friends didn't realize it at the time, but to their parents, it was they themselves -- the poor rich kids -- they had become obsolete.

All too often, my friends belonged to a family with adequate financial resources, but a sadly empty coffer where the intra-family connections should have been.

Not that my household was the fiefdom of any sort of modern-day Robin Hood -- No, no, nonono. Though that didn't stop me from trying (and ultimately succeeding) to transcend the technology-barren landscape of my Luddite upbringers. Nope, my parents would have no part of the developing world, it seemed. Perhaps they misguidedly believed they were living Bohemian ideals. (Meanwhile, the real Bohemian idealists were working feverishly in their parents' garages; toiling and pouring their blood, sweat, and tears into inventing all kinds of you-know-what.) And my home situation was not a case of choosing family over money -- It was simply a dearth of both. To put it into familiar terms: I survived on my wits. I had to.

Thus, "early adopter" came to me to mean, in a roundabout way, money and apathy combined (or, as stated earlier, more money than time or even sense).

And as if that wasn't enough of a hurdle growing up, I found myself in a household rife with condescension, disdain, even condemnation for my creative impulses. I'm sure it's now a common scenario, but my (highly evolved) phone rings off the hook with meek, apologetic -- even apoplectic -- calls from my very own parents for help with survival in the modern world. It would be enough to drive me to distraction if that wasn't already my default state from youth.

I didn't come to this article to complain about my upbringing, or tarnish the veneer of my wealthy but attention-starved friends. I had a positive purpose in mind. (That's how it works when you learn, successfully, to transcend the above.)

I came to say that I am no early adopter in the more-money-than-time-or-sense world of wealthy absentee adults. Perhaps I came to coin a more appropriate term. I am no early adopter; I am -- and always have been -- an early (and avid) experimenter. Transcending the travails of my youth -- which I will try not to bemoan here -- I relished what was novel. Not because I could afford it, but because I wanted to experiment. I wanted to see what the world was doing beyond my parents' four technophobic walls. And boy, did I get my hands on some things.

DIGITAL MAN

Digital cameras were not very well-known in 1997. I'm sure I could compare their special status of that day to something similarly unobtainable today, but that reference would be dated soon after this writing! Very much in accord with what I wrote earlier about the split-hair meaning of "early adopter", to wit: I did not own the first digital cameras. But I sure as hell got my hands on them! To play with them, explore them, discover what exactly they were there for at the time, and what they would be doing in the future. I'm writing this in 2007. I have absolute faith that anyone reading this, at any level of technical knowledge, can appreciate how much they knew about basic digital photography in 1997 versus their awareness of it now. To restate a refrain I hear every day now, you can't buy a telephone without a digital camera in it. Shall we imagine where on this path we'll be in 2017?

The picture. The picture is me, in 1997, with one of the first commercially available digital cameras. I don't know how, but I managed to convince my employer to let me use it on a vacation to the Santa Clara Valley (from New York). Why did we even have one? If I recall correctly, it was for the (EXTREMELY novel, even controversial) plan at the time to take photographs of employees and put them on biographical websites on a company intranet. (How radical and risky a plan! I'm sure it had more detractors than believers.)

There I am, in 1997. On vacation. Chasing San Francisco and Silicon Valley (where I have now lived for most of my adult life). I took a lot of pictures then. Well, adjust that number the "inflation" of technologies' capacity... I recently retrieved them from old data archives -- just like a modern-day archaeologist.

Me. In 1997. With a digital camera. Feeling like an Alexander Graham with the first telephone. I have tons of pics from that nascent time. (I had the foresight to take some of myself, like you see here). So my friends of the time have been immortalized in digital print -- ten years before they now, I assume, take it for granted that they are never more than a few feet away from a digital photographic device.

HISTORY DECIDES

So, should you call me an early adopter? I 'adopted' 8-bit computers before many of my peers could read. I didn't own those computers. If you know me, you've probably heard me tell of one of my father's most infamous attributions: Circa 1982-1984, my father's refrain was consistently, "I don't see the use in a computer. I just don't see their purpose. What do they do?" That last question from dad was rhetorical -- There was no answer I could give that would buy me any cred with dad that might end up in his accepting a computer into our lives. Maybe he thought they were a fad. Maybe a lot of people did at that point in recent history. At any rate, I don't think I need to go any further to explain why I wasn't an early owner!

This is the end of this written piece, but it is really only the start of my story. It may even be a survival story. You may be irritated or even infuriated that I'm speaking -- in an article ostensibly about technology -- about persevering, even triumphing over some pretty significant obstacles as I grew. From a curious child to a just-as-curious (though ever more competent) adult. If that is remotely the case, I would point out that this article is indeed more cathartic than most articles on the importance of technology, research and development. It's about a different kind of development -- mine. And that, for me, cannot be separated from my core motive, my singular driving force: curiosity.

Call me an early adapter.

Jeremy Isaac