On the Moral Splendor of the Early Adopter

By James Fallows

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.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2010/06/on-the-moral-splendor-of-the-early-adopter/57549/