Nostalgia Blast: The Tech Wiz

Before I head off to the next chapter of my life at Northwestern University, I want to take a trip back down memory lane with the Nostalgia Blast series. Each column will focus on a certain part of my childhood and explain how it made my last 17 years so unique and fun. Today I’ll delve into my interesting relationship technology amidst a generation that has largely been defined by it. 

The year was 2002. My pregnant mom was at the doctor’s office for a sonogram for my brother Jeffrey, and I happened to be along for the ride. Then, as my mom was watching the screen intently, everything turned off. The source of the chaos: yours truly. I saw a glowing button under the equipment and felt compelled to push it.

Pushing buttons has been a central part of growing up in the 2000s. The era defined by technological advances and the rise of the internet and social media was a fun and exciting place to come of age. But to say I was at the forefront of technological advancement would be false; the opposite was true. I was the kid who used a Windows XP desktop computer for gaming, who brought a flip phone to middle school, who got his sports news via the radio and recorded programs on a tape recorder. To a kid today, the devices that I used would be described as ancient. To a kid who lived at the time I used them, those devices would also be described as ancient. Though I’ve (somewhat) caught up to the norms of tech today, revisiting my technological past is a nostalgic and hilarious journey.

I’ll kick it off with my preschool glory days, the least tech-dependent time of my life. Computer use was practically non-existent, and I barely had an idea about the internet. Remember, this was before the release of the Wii video gaming console, and just around the start of Facebook. The media consumption of the day was mostly TV shows. Before DVR’s were around, my mom recorded the daily showings of Magic School Bus on our VCR machine onto tapes, so that I could replay them later after school and then start the process over again the next day. These weren’t exquisite cable channels, either: almost every show was on the PBS station or on a DVD disc or VCR tape. 

To pass time outside of the TV room, I’d read books, play on the playground in our backyard, or use a learning/gaming console known as the LeapPad Learning System. Basically, this system looked like a thick, plastic cover to a book, and to use it, I would put a special magazine-like book (like Batman or Madagascar) and its corresponding cartridge. Then, I’d use the magic pen to press the different parts of the page and the corresponding sounds coming out of the system would narrate the experience. To me, this glorified radio was like a video game, and soon I had amassed a collection of a dozen of these books and knew them inside and out. But at the time, devices like these felt perfectly normal and presented an exhilarating, interactive experience. 

Kindergarten introduced me to the worlds of computers and the World Wide Web (as it was called), and I immediately latched on and became an expert. I figured out how to go to the different gaming websites like Disney, Sports Illustrated Kids and PBS Kids (not hardcore gaming websites, but they kept us happy), and consequently rose to the top of the kindergarten social hierarchy. In the next couple years, I came to see the media center recess pass, in which you could trade in a nondescript game of little-kid soccer for a half-hour of playing Poptropica on the computer, as the holy grail of elementary school. 

On the other hand, my peers had the edge after the school bell rang. I was one of the only kids not to have a Wii gaming console at my house, and I more than compensated for this deficiency whenever I went on playdates. Since my mom didn’t want to allow gaming consoles entrance into our home, I worked with what I had, which was a Windows XP desktop. There was no internet connection, just applications like the word processor WordPerfect (which gave way to Word, which has been effectively trumped by Google Docs) and the music player iTunes. I expanded my gaming collection, but only further into the past with titles like NFL Madden 2002, Backyard Baseball 2003, and NBA Live ‘97. There were other games as well, like Zoo Tycoon and the programming app Game Maker, that also vied for my attention. And despite how antiquated those games might seem, they made my weekly allotment of 20 minutes of computer time feel like pure bliss.

As I advanced from grade to grade, I saw different applications for technology grow, even if the devices themselves hadn’t moved past the 80’s. I tuned in every Sunday night at 9 pm to listen to a program streaming from a website into a wireless speaker in my room, and when I couldn’t, I used a tape recorder to get down a copy or save for later. It felt awesome when I proudly played Cam Newton’s Heisman speech in front of my Sunday School class, even if the thought of that blows my mind today. There were always little gadget toys like Connect Four, Hangman and Pinball that were decent entertainment for a few plays, though my brother’s portable gaming system “The Didj” always seemed the coolest. Today, it appears clunky, simple and boring. Back then, it was the future.

The transition from elementary to middle school also launched a new era in my technology use. I added a phone, a music player, a tablet, and computer apps to my arsenal. Of course, they were hardly the newest phones, music players, tablets, and computer apps. The phone was a thick Nokia with one bowling game, prone to going off at random and inopportune times. The music player – a Sansa SanDisk music player, no larger than 1 inch by 2 inches in dimension, requiring only wmv audio files to run. I couldn’t buy songs either, so I figured out a way to download five per week from the limited library archive and get them on the device. They didn’t last long (I think I bought four, or so), but I could match the iPods that were so popular with my peers and catch up to the music of my day (or, to be more accurate, the music of five years prior). I used Windows Movie Maker with my family’s new digital video recorder, and was in awe of Google Sketchup, which I could use to design my own houses. 

But the diamonds of my collections had to be my Kindle e-readers, the e-ink Touch and the LED Fire. They were my primary gaming consoles, with 99 cent games on the Touch like Lemonade Stand and Brick Arcade (which had to refresh the e-ink every five seconds) and geography quizzes on the Fire. Sports news was another strong suit, with my subscription to the AP Sports “magazine” sending five new sports articles to my Kindle Touch every couple hours. They became go-to music players, online shopping browsers, and, of course, my new favorite way to read books. I remember thinking that e-readers would do away with libraries, and though their popularity and momentum has seemingly died down, they were, and remain for me, a pretty awesome way to read. But my use of them as a Swiss Army Knife of entertainment is entertaining to think about, to say the least. 

The tide turned in seventh grade, when I made the grandest purchase of my life to date and finally caught up to my tech generation. After years and years of saving and countless hours of researching, I purchased a Toshiba Satellite laptop to call my own. A dream of mine was realized, and surprisingly (given my high expectations), the machine did not let me down. I got my $430 worth of that laptop, even though the hard drive became unhinged after a year. I used the computer for school, for gaming, for video editing, everything. And it lasted from the last week of seventh grade to my college applications senior year, remarkable for a device that was literally coming apart at the seams at the end. But as with all of the aforementioned technology, part of the fun of the laptop came with making it work and fit my entertainment needs. It was a good run.

The laptop was just the start. In high school, I bolstered my running training with a GPS watch (I’ve gone through five since), updated my sports games from 1997 to 2019, joined social media apps such as Facebook and Instagram, run a sports/movie blog, became a regular YouTube consumer and upgraded my phone from flip phone to an Android smartphone (I’m almost to iPhone, but not just yet). My new laptop has a touchscreen that rotates 180 degrees into a tablet – feats that would cause the most unsettling crack sounds from my previous model. My use of technology has grown exponentially since the early days, but thankfully the types of technology I’ve used can now accommodate this load.

Make no mistake, my abnormal use of technology through the ages made a mark on me and my identity, but it’s not necessarily a bad one. A lot of those devices are still useful to me today, as most of my book consumption is through my Kindle Touch (and my invaluable library ebook archives), while most of my music consumption comes via Amazon Music on my Fire. I’ve also embraced the mentality of being behind the times on my technology, seeing it as more humorous and humbling than a barrier.  Learning to save money by not buying the next new thing has  been  a valuable lesson, along with learning how to make the most of what I have (even if that means playing Brick Arcade on a five-second lag). And, of course, there’s the feelings of nostalgia that bubble up whenever I think about ancient devices like the LeapPad Learning System and the Didj put a smile on my face. 

To many people, the 2000s were all about technology, and the buttons we press figure to have even more significant of a role in the decades to come. But if I can endure a Nokia phone and WordPerfect and make it work, I think I can handle what’s to come. 

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