Yes, Good Old Retro 1979 Seemed Fun (But It Really Sucked!)

Illustration for article titled Yes, Good Old Retro 1979 Seemed Fun (But It Really Sucked!)

Writing about technology as it was thirty years ago, I realized that 1979 was perhaps the last year before a digital tsunami hit, sweeping clean the analog era that had persisted for decades.


Pretty much every gadget then-from typewriters to phones to music playback devices-was an electro-mechanic artifact of the industrial age. But beginning in the 80s all those tools began their ascent to the digital. Basically, we'd wind up doing everything differently.

Within a couple of years, the music cassettes we listened to turned would become CDs.

The typewriters would become word processors.

The cassette-based telephone answering machines would become digital playback devices.

Our television choices-four or five channels VHF and maybe four or five more UHF-would be bolstered by hundreds of cable channels. We'd get VCR's. And tape our own videos. All of that in early 1980's. Then would come the ubiquity of personal computers. And then the Internet. And cell phones. Are you getting the idea?

It was not just a change in our gadgetry, but also a change in our thinking.

That's why Gizmodo's decision to dive to 1979 was so interesting. Except for those hard at work making the stuff that was about to rock everyone else's world, people lived unaware of the revolution to come. It was a technological equivalent of the denial between the Wars. I was among those clueless; my own sudden and total conversion wouldn't come until 1981, when I embarked on a story about the subculture of computer hackers. I did read about those nutty kids who started Apple, and was vaguely aware that all of that stuff was coming. But I never put the pieces together. In my defense, hardly anyone did, and even the ones on top of things grossly underestimated how crazy things would get.


There's no reason to get nostalgic about 1979-in retrospect, it was terrible not having email, Google, iPods, word processing, Twitter, WOW, Amazon, GPS, Google and websites devoted to unnecessary quotation marks. (Also, the Phillies had never won a world series-how awful was that?) Maybe all these new tools have trashed the minds and attention spans of young people growing. But the minds of baby boomers like me were probably ruined much more by unlimited access to the stupid-making television programming of the early sixties.

After 1979, the bit was flipped, big-time. Thank God.

Steven Levy is a senior writer for Wired, most recently writing about Google's ad business and the secret of the CIA sculpture. He's written six books, including Hackers, Artificial Life and The Perfect Thing, about the iPod. In 1979, he had just left his first real job, at a regional magazine called New Jersey Monthly, to become a freelance writer, and had yet to touch a computer.


Gizmodo '79 is a week-long celebration of gadgets and geekdom 30 years ago, as the analog age gave way to the digital, and most of our favorite toys were just being born.




1000 years from now historians will discuss that curious little 'analog period' that preceded the dawn of the digital age and will marvel at the ludicrously complicated electro-mechanical devices we ginned up in order to perform basic tasks.