When I was but a small child of 8 or 9, my parents got me a record player. It wasn’t a good one like they had downstairs in the lounge. It didn’t have separate speakers like theirs did. It wasn’t made of sleek ebony plastic like theirs was. Mine was so heavy it had to be puffed up the stairs by two full grown men and wheeled into my bedroom. The reason it was so heavy was that it was entirely encased in wood and came with its own trolley. It was basically furniture; a lightweight descendant of the full record-playing, drinks-cabinet sideboards of the seventies. It had a speaker somewhere inside that hammered out through holes drilled into the oak box it called a body.
It was ungainly but with that hulking great piece of audio bric-a-brac came my first taste of freedom. Until then, my experience of music had been whatever my parents had put on in the car. Now, I finally had control over my own audio environment and I used it to play some of the worst records I could lay my hands on. Driven mostly by a magpie-like obsession with double gate-fold 12-inch LPs and novelty pop, I amassed a modest collection of almost total dross. I can recall switching from The Birdy Song to various songs from something called Paint Your Wagon that we picked up from a car boot sale. My tastes would gradually improve and I spent many hours listening to a new copy of Now 21 which would bring the sort of enlightenment that only comes from a lyrical diet of Curtis Stigers and The Wonder Stuff.
Like the wooden record-playing trolley, the personal stereo would eventually be consigned to the back of the cupboard when I received my first ‘portable compact disc player’. Again, the rich kids had ‘Discmans’ but mine was second-hand, skipped a lot and probably had the word Goodmans emblazoned on the lid. I would spend my weekends trawling the mall for CD singles of Oasis and terrible (but very reasonably priced) 12 disc jungle compilation albums. Be assured, no-one needs that much M Beat feat General Levy.
I would eventually go on to spend my teenage years listening to CDs, my twenties spending hours downloading MP3s off AudioGalaxy, and Napster over a 56.6kpbs internet connection until eventually arriving at the blistering technological future where every song is available as quick as you can think of it. Even now I’m listening to Now 21 on Spotify, having thought of it whilst writing this.
But before all those technological miracles, those pieces of simple technology helped widen my understanding of the world. The audio sideboard, the ‘walkman’ and the ‘discman’ were connections to something bigger than myself. I could use them to capture pieces of the world and hold onto them to experience as much as I wanted.
They weren’t working alone. They would have been working in constant collaboration with my Sega MegaDrive, my Nintendo GameBoy and, in the living room, the ‘big telly’ (it was our only telly).
These pieces of technology shaped my childhood like lenses in a pair of glasses. I was a quiet nerdy child that lived in a remote village farm with very few neighbours so I interpreted the world through the media I could get my hands on, whether that was watching Going Live with Sarah Green and Philip Schofield or playing Castle of Illusion.
Any movie, tv show, music video, song, book or game can be purchased and delivered in seconds. This has been made evident to me by how many thousand times I’ve watched the exact same episode of Paw Patrol or listened to Taylor Swift’s Shake It Off. Media is available literally ‘on-demand’ and considering how far we came in such a short time, it’s a truly amazing situation. Never before has our culture been able to serve up anything and everything so readily and this, perhaps briilliantly, perhaps terrfiyingly, is the lens that our children will use to view the world.
If my market knock-off walkman was a peek through a keyhole into a bigger world, then the modern world of Facebook, Netflix and YouTube is an all-you-can-eat buffet of consumable media.
So the big question that I’m curious about is this. If the clunky technology of the 80s and 90s shaped my childhood experience, how is modern technology going to shape my own childrens’ experience? Can smartphones , tablet apps and the internet shape the young minds of today into the functioning adults of tomorrow? Is it any less authentic than my own experience or better for having such a wider window to look through?
Even that may be short-sighted because, just like I advanced through new iterations of technology, so will our own children. One day they’ll look mockingly back at photos of us jabbing at our smartphones like so many cavemen jabbing at a cave wall with sticks.
So, how can we design technology that is actually beneficial to navigating and understanding a world of perpetual content?
Perhaps as we progress in a world ultra-saturated with content, we may start to develop our ability to filter our own content more expertly. If current trends are any indicator, the future of consumer technology will be less about maximum media consumption shaped by our own purchasing habits and instead we will become hyper-aware of the artificial bias created for us by targeted advertising. When that happens, there will be a huge demand for devices and applications that enable us to be the true masters of our own consumption; to become informed customers with specific needs.
Perhaps it’s stretching the analogy to breaking point but if we use technology as a lens through which we shape our reality, we may start to believe that because the lens is so large now that we see everything so much more clearly. The truth, sadly, is that as the view gets bigger, it has never been easier to distort what we see. To have our view shaped involuntarily.
The most savvy designers then, will either be those that are able to innovate the technology that puts the tools of free will in our hands to shape our own view of reality unfettered by external interests. Alternatively, perhaps insidiously, it may also be those that create yet another illusory layer that leaves us feeling contented and masterful whilst still happily spending our money.
Ultimately, as a parent, I am at least partly responsible for that future. So, with that in mind, if anyone needs me I’ll be with my kids, teaching them about ethics by making them watch both Bill & Ted movies back to back.