On the Moral Splendor of the Early Adopter

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Whether writing about the joys of the first personal computers nearly 30 years ago, or about flying cars or personal organizers or magic running shoes or VPNs in recent days (links too numerous to mention), I've tried to take a self-mocking tone about my infatuation with this range of gadgetry. Strategic judgment: if there's going to be mockery, I might as well get ahead of the crowd.

Reader Herb Caudill in Washington DC argues that there actually is something admirable and touching about the early-adopter's craving for new stuff. Here's his case, which makes me feel better about myself -- and which I also think is true.

I was only 12 when that [1982 article] was written, but already a confirmed technophile. I remember longing hopelessly for some of the specific hardware you mention (ah, the TRS-80!). I could really identify with your heroic struggle to get your own word processor when there wasn't really any such thing as a personal computer.

I find that the early adopter mentality is widely misunderstood: Journalists going for a sociological angle on the people in line for iPads, for example, focus on a desire for status or attention, or to be first on the block. They completely miss the point. They don't understand that the desire is for the thing itself and for what it can do; that we imagined this device before it was announced; that we're constantly bumping up against the limitations of what's available today; and that when these things finally appear in stores, we say "At last!" And then we buy them, and use them, and immediately get frustrated with its shortcomings and start waiting for the day when the next model comes out.

I play the piano, and for years I've wrangled my sheet music collection in frustration, and dreamed (in detail) of a digital device that would hold all my music and show it to me on a little screen. I finally have that (iPad + ForScore app). I just can't believe it took this long. Now when is the version going to come out that actually does OCR on the score and turns the pages automatically?

Cell phones, and then the iPhone; dial-up Internet, then always-on broadband and wi-fi; notebook computers, then tablet computers; digital music and portable players; digital cameras. All of these things we imagined, and wanted, long before they existed on the consumer market. And there are many others we're still waiting for. It's 2010, for crying out loud; what's taking so long?

PS If you want to blow a few hours going down memory lane, check out the vintage computer ads here.
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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.
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