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Jewish World Review
Oct. 30, 2008
/ 1 Mar-Cheshvan 5769
Early adopters tech their chances
I remember growing up learning that one of the defining characteristics of this great nation, along with "Wessonality," was our uniquely American inventive streak. So many of history's most important inventions originated here - the steam engine, the light bulb, the telephone, the "Rooty Tooty Fresh -N- Fruity" breakfast at IHOP - that it's safe to say we are unquestionably a "nation of inventors." Which is why as children we memorized the names of Thomas Edison, Alexander Graham Bell and James Watt - not just because these men were geniuses, but because we believed, in our hearts as Americans, that they were also going to be on the test.
And while I admire my fellow Americans' ingenuity, I can't help but wonder whether it was really all that difficult for our inventor forebears. I mean, just look at all the stuff we didn't have but clearly needed. Plus without distractions like television, the Internet and cell phones, what else was there to do besides try to invent them? Sit down alone at a drafting table for long enough and, after you grew bored of making hand outline turkeys, you'd be bound to eventually say to yourself, "Hey, you know what would be great to have? A radio."
That's why to me, more impressive than the original inventors, are the so-called "early adopters" - those individuals who will eagerly try out whatever latest absurd-looking high-tech gizmo is touted in the pages of Wired Magazine, bravely risking the ridicule that inevitably follows from friends, family members, coworkers and, frequently, even passing strangers in the street.
Recent examples might include:
Personal data assistants (PDAs). The rest of us have grown accustomed to users of these hand-held devices interrupting conversations every few minutes to dig out their personal pocket "tech-retary." Using the gadget's accompanying pen-like stylus, they then peck in a just-acquired piece of critical information such as a mutual acquaintance's phone number, the neighbor's cat's astrological sign or the time and date of an upcoming Comic Book convention.
Cell phones. Sure, nowadays practically all of us, including senior citizens, pre-teens and even many of our pets, have cell phones, but that wasn't always the case. Not that long ago talking in public on a cell phone was widely considered the kind of thing that only egotistical, self-important snobs would do. Since cell phone use has become nearly universal, however, what's become apparent is that even regular people can become egotistical and self-important.
Segway scooters. Segways were supposed to be the Next Big Thing, the greatest revolution in personal transportation since monkeys climbed down from the trees and started riding around on roller skates. The only problem is that there remains no plausible way of riding around on a Segway without looking: a) silly and b) like someone who is just too damned lazy to walk like everybody else.
But the most compelling example has to be the Bluetooth earpieces for cell phones that make users look like they've contracted a rare ear affliction caused by intimate contact with a dustbuster. Either that or they've been tagged by alien beings eager to study the movements of 21st century yuppies. Honestly, the first time you saw someone on the street wearing one, didn't you react by thinking, "What the heck is that doofus wearing in his ear?" Whereas now, because of the popularity of this particular cell phone accessory, upon seeing the same person, you would most likely think, "That doofus is wearing a Bluetooth wireless device in his ear."
Part of why early adopters don't get enough credit is because once new technologies become ubiquitous, it's easy to forget just how bold those pioneering first users were. After all, for every person with the foresight and judgment to start wearing, say, Gore-tex gloves or fleece-lined jackets to protect against the elements, there are plenty of others who thought they were way ahead of the curve with their windshield wiper glasses and umbrella hats.
This phenomenon of ridiculing early adopters is probably not a creation of the information age either. No doubt the first person who went out wearing a pair of spectacles led very soon thereafter to the first recorded instance of someone being called "four-eyes." And you just know that the earliest bicycle riders had to deal with frequent jeers of, "Hey, what happened to your horse?" Not to mention, of course, the inevitable accusations of doping.
So while we rightly remember and applaud the legacy of all the great and industrious American inventors through the ages, shouldn't all the many brave individuals who helped forge the path ahead by willingly acting as guinea pigs for whatever cockamamie new doohickey rolled out of some inventor's workshop also get a statue commemorating their sacrifices? We could all throw rotten fruit at it.
JWR contributor Malcolm Fleschner is a humor columnist for The DC Examiner. Let him know what you think by clicking here.
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© 2006, Malcolm Fleschner