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Andy Sullivan: Against the Grain

This week, I will conclude my ‘80’s gadget countdown.  We pick up at #5.  Throughout the ‘80’s, most gadgets started getting smaller. The boombox, however, got bigger.  Unlike traditional home entertainment systems, the boombox was very public.  It was like a personal studio or club.  The boombox was all about maximum base and volume.  Its contribution to the growth of hip hop is unparalleled.  The bigger the box, the better.  This brash, bold boombox wasn’t for everyone.  By the mid-‘80’s, the public’s patience for the boombox was wearing thin.  In the early ‘90’s, the NYPD launches “operation soundtrack”.  This was, in essence, a war on the boombox and, some say, their owners.  With a threat of $500 fines and equipment confiscation, the golden age of the box that boomed was over.

#4: In the ‘80’s, the American public became producers of content.  One creator was a young Kevin Smith.  The role of the camcorder in the ‘80’s was about to get all to real.  In 1982, JVC launched the first portable camera, which records directly onto VHS tape.  The camcorder revolutionized ‘80’s culture.  In 1988, a video camera captured brutality in New York.  This led to the indictment of six police officers for excessive force.  

While some were using the camcorder for social justice, for most it was an instrument of fun.  It single-handedly caused the birth of America’s Funniest Home Video’s (shortened to AFV today).  People wanted to laugh at the misfortune of others.  That premise gave us YouTube.  The camcorder paved the way for the performance culture of today.  

We move to #3.  The Smartphone was a pipedream in the ‘80’s.  It was a long time ago in a land far away.  Back then, phones had these things attached to them called cords.  Thanks to then-President Ronald Regan’s de-regulation of the airwaves, a new gadget would save us from the tyranny of the landline.  A gadget which, according to its inventor, was inspired by the communicator device from Star Trek.  The Motorola Dynatech cellphone launched in 1983 and became an instant icon.  The portable phone’s time had arrived, but it was bulky, expensive, and not for everyone.  In the early ‘80’s, it was a status symbol.  It wasn’t until the early ‘90’s that the cellphone started to pick up steam.

#2: It’s 1981- and 26-year-old Steve Jobs built Apple from a scrappy start-up in a California garage into one of America’s biggest companies.  Jobs was on a mission to convert America to personal computing.  In the early ‘80’s, only a fraction of America could operate a computer.  In 1984, Jobs was ready to introduce a computer for the masses: the Apple McIntosh.  The key to max simplicity was the graphical user interface, a revolutionary display system that used icons and a mouse.  Apple sold 275,000 units in 1984.  Jobs’ genius idea wasn’t exactly his own.  In 1981, Xerox introduced the Xerox Star.  Priced at $17,000, it didn’t exactly sell.  Jobs took their idea and ran.  The rest, as they say, is history.

It’s unimaginable today but there was a time when being able to have your music with you wherever you went was a revolutionary thought.  The #1 gadget on this list certainly started a trend.  The Sony Walkman was something that everybody wanted.  It launched in the U.S. in 1980.  For kids, having headphones and listening to whatever you wanted was great.  For some parents, not knowing what their kids were listening to was a frightening thought.  The PMRC (Parents Music Resource Committee), co-founded by Tipper Gore (yes, former Vice President Al Gore’s wife), tried their best to censor music.  They drew up a list of songs with sex and violence that they wanted to censor.  While they didn’t achieve their goal, they did get a win: the parental advisory sticker on CD’s and cassettes with questionable lyrics was the result of their work.  Meanwhile, the Walkman thrived.  Everyone walks around with earbuds these days.  The Walkman predated it all.  Next week, my ‘80’s series comes to its conclusion as I review top toys of the decade.  In the meantime, feel free to check out my podcast, Blendertainment, at the links below. 


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