I recently admired a friend’s Facebook Timeline, a feature I haven’t turned on and probably won’t. It feels intrusive to me, although that might change. It dawned on me that each of us has personal timelines limited in number and scope only by the contexts we wish to examine. For example, our health or financial history, or our relationship with technology, as I examine and share below.
Timelines reveal far more than just one’s past, even if writing one is indeed a walk down memory lane. An individual timeline is likely to reveal, among other things, our socio-economic status, the era during which we lived, some of our values, and the extent of our education. Even our choice of timelines is highly telling. This only scratches the surface.
Consider my Technology Timeline below and compare it to that of a college senior who is 21. That student turned 13 in 2004, when Facebook was born and a few years before it was made available to everyone, not just on college campuses. At age 9, that student likely viewed Napster and P2P file sharing as the norm. What’s high-speed dubbing?, he might have asked, whereas its introduction into my life was a technological event that let my friends and me share our music. Our student is likely to have experienced in his short life more changes in the way he uses technology than anyone in history did in their entire lifetime. This pace will only increase.
Timelines are important because they allow us to revisit our past. Facebook understood that this desire, coupled with the basic human instinct to share our experiences with family and friends, would make Timeline a hit. Putting aside privacy concerns, then nailed it.
Yet one need not tell Facebook everything to share what you wish with whom you wish. Your timelines are yours. You can create one and limit it to a topic that matters to you. Trust me, it’s fun (depending on your focus), and so before challenging you at the end of this piece, I offer below my own Technology Timeline – where I’ve been an am today.
Technology And I – My Timeline
At age five, when I played with my Texas Instruments Little Professor—(5 x 7 was a typical Level One question; Level Three eluded me completely)—who would have thought that I would one day write this piece on a cloud-based application (Google Docs) and publish it on Forbes’ huge WordPress platform?
My TI Little Professor was pretty cool, but it was nothing compared to Star Wars, which was released not long thereafter (1977). Granted, it was fiction, but technology was everywhere. There was the inimitable Death Star, which destroyed the planet Alderaan with one pinpoint blast. Laser guns—every young boy’s dream—took out Stormtroopers. And there were sentient robots and spaceships everywhere, including the ability to travel via hyperspace. Earth did not exist in this Galaxy Far Far Away, but no matter. All my friends and I wanted to go there.
At home, little compared to UNIX, which had two of the greatest games of all time: Zork and Adventure. I still remember sitting on my dad’s lap scared out of my wits that Zork’s evil Wumpus was just around the corner in the next room. Zork rocked, and good luck finding someone who will tell you otherwise.
There was Pong, of course, which I played at my friend Adam’s house. Then Atari came along with such classics at Yar’s Revenge (my favorite) and Pitfall. Arcades were filled with Space Invaders, and then later Pac Man, Centipede, Galaga, and others. If I strived to get good grades in elementary school, it was in large part because Penny’s, a beloved and locally owned fast food restaurant in Irmo, South Carolina, gave out tokens that could be used in the arcade next door. The arcade went out of business just a few years later.
The Commodore 64 entered my life in early middle school. I remember two things about it. The first was a programming language called LOGO with which I managed to program a small block-like car that scrolled across the screen. Magical. Second, it was connected to a dot matrix printer that had paper with perforated edges that had to be fed into a spin wheel.
It’s difficult to forget those early Casio computers that you could assemble yourself. A family friend typed in hundreds of lines of code from GAME magazine (a classic). He then turned it off. He assumed that the computer would automatically save his code, an assumption that in those days wasn’t that far-fetched if you were new to computers. I’ve been told that the ensuing scene wasn’t pretty.
By middle school, my father had purchased the first Macintosh. He still has it, along with just about every other product Apple has made. The Mac smiled at you when you turned it on and had a user interface that was different from any other. Again, magical.
Technology wasn’t always the source of magic and joy. With several days left in 1983, my dad gave me a timely birthday present: George Orwell’s 1984. Two days later, I was pretty worried. Today, Orwell seems prescient. Two years later, technology exposed its limitations in a very real way to my ninth grade class. A faulty O-ring created a disaster in the sky and chaos on the ground. If the Space Shuttle Challenger explosion wasn’t bad enough per se, it took on added meaning for me. For the first time, I saw the United States as vulnerable. We had made a mistake of epic proportions on the world stage. During the Cold War—to put this in perspective, remember that President Reagan and Gorbachev did not convene for the Reykjavik Summit until later that year (1986) and mutual assured destruction (MAD) was hardly an idle acronym—this was a big deal. Given the fact that only several years before, all students at my elementary school practiced curling up under our desks for protection in the event of a nuclear attack, I didn’t enjoy this newfound feeling at all.
High school ushered in the Apple IIe with its small monochrome (green) monitor, which was perfect for what I needed. Dot matrix printers were still in vogue. High school also required that I learn the programming language Pascal, which I hated. BASIC was my language. The ‘GO TO’ function had no equal, and with it I had programmed years earlier a simple Choose Your Own Adventure module. I wish I still had it.
I don’t remember why I didn’t take my Apple IIe to college, but I had two friends, John and Wes, who for two years let me use their Mac and Apple II, respectively. I inherited from my father during my third year his next-to-latest generation Macintosh. It had an external hard drive that I remember buying with him five years earlier at our local mall. The salesman dropped it from above his head three times (really) in order to show how sturdy it was. Price: $800. Memory: 10 megabytes. Megabytes – that’s nothing. 3.5-inch disks seemed like a paradigm shift. The 5-¼ diskettes that fueled my AppleIIe only a few years earlier were as flimsy as paper by comparison.
As much as I loved my Mac, I didn’t yet have a printer, which meant trekking to the computer lab. The lab was fine, but hardly ideal for any serious editing or revisions. I survived. I solved this problem by convincing my mom that the lab consumed too much time—it did—and so another magical moment occurred. I got an ink jet printer that sat perfectly on my desk and produced brilliant quality type for my research papers. I never visited the lab again.
During the second semester of my fourth year (1993) of college, I had graduated to a Mac Book Pro that shepherded me through law school in brilliant fashion. I used it until 2003. For kicks, I tried to turn it on a few years ago. It’s still booting.
I spent 15 months after college as a paralegal in a D.C. law firm. Word Perfect ruled the day. After having mastered all the Word Perfect keystrokes, the transition to Microsoft Windows 95 seemed incredibly inconvenient. Above all, I did not have a specific technology—the simple PDF—that would have made my job much easier. I wrote about this here.
In 1995, a company called Netscape went public. Four years later, I worked for the law firm partner who guided its IPO. I still remember watching those shooting stars rotate around the earth as a web page loaded. It didn’t matter how slow it was. I watched those stars and tried to wrap my head around this thing called the Internet. What exactly is it, anyway? Where does it reside? I didn’t understand any of it. Magic.
We had rudimentary email during law school (1995-98), but at some point I signed for my own personal and free email account offered by Yahoo!. Hotmail was all the rage, but Yahoo!, with its search engine and seeming mastery of the Internet, seemed to me a safer bet. I used that account until 2004, when I waited with abated breath for an invitation to join GMail.
By the time I arrived in Silicon Valley, cell phones were becoming ubiquitous. I remember well the Sprint store on El Camino Real in Redwood City where I bought my first. It was a Nokia as big as a blackboard eraser. It weighed a ton and had clunky push buttons, but I didn’t care. With its black leather case, plastic face protector, and belt clip, I was good to go. Rare was the ride home from work during which I didn’t call a friend on the East Coast just because I could.
Silicon Valley was abuzz in those days – the Bust didn’t arrive until March 2002. “Eyeballs” ruled the day, the standard by which business models were judged. Question One: How many people will look at your site? Advertising models were revolutionized, but most failed. Document management was taking hold and being monetized by public companies. Then came enterprise application integration (EAI) and business-to-business integration (B2Bi). Every company had an (e) either at the front or the end of its name. The (e) would later become (i).
Google’s super fast search engine exploded onto the scene with its algorithms and Page Ranks based on a graduate school paper by two Stanford doctoral students, Sergey Brin and Larry Page: “The Anatomy of a Large-Scale Hypertextual Web Search Engine.” If you’re sufficiently hard core, you can read it here. I’m not.
By 2003, I had a blog and my first website. Both quickly went the way of that massive hard drive.
2004 ushered in my first iPod. Compared to the Sony dual cassette high-speed dubbing boom box that I bought in 1986, the iPod was, of course, magic. I will say this: that early model iPod no longer works; the Sony stereo does.
By 2006, I was communicating with friends by text message (SMS) on even the most rudimentary cell phones, which had become half as heavy and big. They were all pocket-size. “Texting” required cycling through keys with three letters each, but it worked in a pinch. I suspect my spelling was as accurate as it is today on my iPhone 4S. All things being equal, I’ll stick with my iPhone.
One year later, I got my first Blackberry. It was ridiculously big and had a scroll wheel the size of a windmill. They’ve gotten smaller and smaller over time. So too has RIM, the company that makes them. By 2010, I had an iMac, which was nirvana compared to any PC. Imagine a computer that doesn’t crash. “It just works,” Apple says, and it does. Two years later, I am a virtual (i). iPhone, iPad, iTouch. One day I’ll be an iMe. If you want to see Steve Jobs’ legacy in daily life, come visit.
Since then, we have seen the extraordinary rise of wireless technology, cloud computing (first coined in 2006 by then-Google CEO Eric Schmidt), Facebook, Twitter, and other social media. These raise countless ethical and legal issues, with privacy at the fore. The Supreme Court recently held that the government (police) violated the Constitution by attaching a GPS tracker to a suspect’s car without a warrant. Drones now fly overAmerican skies. Biometrics has become a fairly commonplace security technique. Unstructured data is spliced using Informational Dispersal Algorithms. I’m not always sure that I want to see where all this is going. Technology may be magical, but it can also be intimidating.
Part of me yearns for those days when I was filled with wonder (and fright) as I learned whether the Wumpus was around the corner.
Go Ahead – Make Your Own Timeline.
The timeline above is unique to me. Some of my generation might look similar; others won’t in the least. Technology that I took for granted may not have been available to others who lived only a few miles from me. Never mind any 100,000 ft. notion of technology transfer between nations. I’m talking about mere miles – the difference between suburbs and an inner city.
Differences are not just geographical but also, of course, temporal. Imagine the technology timelines of Michelangelo, Thomas Jefferson, the gold miners of the mid-19th century, Marie Curie, and Steve Jobs. Each would be vastly different and dependent upon factors that might not be evident to us as first glance. Consider, for example, that Steve Jobs grew up in Silicon Valley close to Hewlett Packard; the world he knew was chalk full of highly educated engineers; and he had the youthful audacity to write to HP’s founder and ask for parts with which to experiment. These factors alone—both geographical and temporal—render possible thanks to Jobs almost all of my Technology Timeline, evidence that timelines are interconnected in ways that we often can’t see.
Topic-specific timelines of each of the figures above are highly unique, yet no more so than your own. So dive in. Decide what’s important to you. Dig into your memories. Post them on your blog, website, or even as a ‘note’ on Facebook to share with your friends. Seal them in an envelope for your grandchildren.
Timelines are the threads that make up our lives. Nothing less. So go for it, and have fun.