Homeless in Vancouver: Predicting the future of computers is kid's stuff

For better or worse the baby boomer generation of post-Second World War babies are amazing. Never have so many people been born in such a short time: Seventy-eight-or-so million children were born in the U.S. alone between 1945 and 1964—the broadest time span for Boomerdom.

Even their dreams are amazing: so many boomers have the same dreams at the same time, they can’t help but become everyone’s dreams.

I’m typing this post on one of those dreams: a laptop.

Boomers didn’t invent computers, they invented personal computers, to replace the impersonal kind of main- and mini-frame computers their parents invented and which they used in colleges and universities around the world—they were the most educated generation in human history after all.

Look what boomers brought their teacher—an Apple!

Steve Jobs, Steve Wozniak, Bill Gates, Paul Allen, Steve Balmer—all those guys—boomers. They learned computers from their elders like Bill Hewlett and Dave Packard, and the inimitable Grace Hopper.

New technology is almost always built on the framework of the old. The boomers’ parents modelled their newly invented computers around the familiar form factors and interfaces they had grown up with, like punchcards and keyboards and light bulbs.

Boomers have been doing the same thing. But when they think of stuff they grew up with, they just think differently.

This month marks the 30th anniversary of the introduction of the Apple Macintosh computer; Steve Jobs unveiled the future of personal computing on January 24, 1984.

One (now unknown) reviewer famously declared: “The Macintosh is the world’s most expensive Etch A Sketch.”

People have scoffed at that quote ever since. But I bet it made Steve Jobs smile and nod. Because the Mac was carefully designed not to look like a computer but to appeal to consumers the way toasters and TVs and toys did.

In a 1987 Playboy magazine interview with the Apple cofounder and CEO, interviewer David Sheff lobbed the Etch A Sketch quote just so Jobs could knock it out of the park:

“Imagine what you could have done if you had this sophisticated an Etch A Sketch when you were growing up.”

In fact Jobs famously waged a war on buttons and the Etch A Sketch had two too many for his taste.

Twenty-six years later the Etch A Sketch charge was also leveled at the iPad and again critics were right for the wrong reasons. The iPad was the Mac that Jobs and Apple could finally make in 2010.

Head-mounted displays: a boomer thing from way back

Another of Apple’s patents relating to a head mounted display, awarded in December.

A review of the Epson Moverio BT-100 head-mounted display started with a bang when the reviewer recalled that two minutes into watching the Google Glass launch video, he actually said out loud, “SHUT UP AND TAKE MY MONEY.” Too funny and too true.

If really practical head-mounted displays (HMDs) come to market it may be the last great computing gift the boomer generation gives us. I believe it’s fair to say that most everyone over 60 in a position of authority in the computer industry believes a practical HMD is not only desirable but only a matter of time. I believe it also.

I don’t know if younger generations feel the same way about the inevitability of HMDs.

Doesn’t matter. So far boomers, and not just the ones at Apple, have demonstrated an astonishing ability to turn their generation’s childhood fantasies into realities that the rest of us crave.

I want! An ad for a View-Master stereoscope from the late 1950s or early 1960s.

To be or not to be a boomer

The long-standing time frame for the boomer cohort has been 1945 to 1964. That would make me a boomer, but since the 1980s, when boomers were rebranded as “yuppies”, I’ve always felt myself to be about a decade too young to be a boomer and then a decade too old to be a “Gen. X”.

It wasn’t until 2000 that someone spoke up for me: California author Jonathan Pontell posited the existence of a “Generation Jones” in a book of the same name.

Pontell argued that the late boomers born between 1955 and 1964 were a unique group; they shared the high expectations of the earlier boomers but were just enough older to have watched those hopes and dreams be dashed by recession, rising energy costs, and overall disillusionment as they were growing up in the 1970s.

Ah, the 1970s, or as I personally refer to them: “The 13th floor of the 20th century.” Good thing they ended four years early or I might’ve offed myself.

Generation Jones actually eats the boomers for breakfast, by the way: of the 78 million American baby boomers born between 1946 and 1964, about 53 million are Joneses born between 1955 and 1964. That includes U.S. President Barack Obama, Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, and moi.

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