Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Growing Up Geek

As an homage of sorts to Engadget’s Growing Up Geek series, where their staff and other tech personalities discuss their technological upbringing, I present to you my own installment. Enjoy.

There are 2 kinds of geeks in this world. Some are born into geekdom, others find their own way. I fall squarely in the latter realm. To understand this, one should examine my childhood. Growing up, my parents were the opposite of what we’d now call “early adopters.” Nothing against them, but at every technological turn, they were late to the game. This assumes that they ever found out there was a game being played. Technology was usually thrust upon them, and at times, against their will. No one in my immediate family is what I would consider a geek, nerd, or technophile. I have 2 uncles who were 80’s and 90’s technology “users” (read: they owned computers and camcorders), but tech did not consume their lives as it surely does mine. If being a geek means that one’s intelligence and social awkwardness, combined with a love of things like gadgets and video games, causes isolation and alienation, then I was surely a geek. In a small Catholic school class, if I wasn’t the smartest boy and one of the top 3 students overall, I was damn close. The other kids in your class usually resent this, especially when you’re cocky and arrogant about it like I was. Defense mechanisms are a bitch. But I digress.

My earliest childhood memories of technology revolved around 2 subsets of tech that I still enjoy to this day: TV and video games. My parents bought me an Atari 2600 Jr. for Christmas circa 1987. I think they told me some time later that it cost $50, which was big money in those days of single-income households. I remember many fun hours playing Missile Command and Asteroids. Before Nintendo’s monstrously successful Game Boy dominated handheld gaming, there were 1000 different handheld video games from 100 different manufacturers, one of the more popular being made by Tiger Electronics. Some were crude, some were cool. I had a similar knock-off, called Jumpman, which was a trichrome version of Donkey Kong made by Tandy (Radio Shack). I loved it. I brought the bulky, day glow-orange unit everywhere my family went. My mom was taking college courses around this time, requiring digital calculators and tape recorders, which my young sister and I “played with” and rendered unusable. I also remember when my Aunt Mae bought my parents their first VCR, which was around 1985. It was the neatest thing. You could record TV! What a concept! I had no idea how it worked, but it did, usually. Looking back, I’m especially grateful that my aunt bought us VHS instead of BetaMax. I have no idea what the VCR cost her, but it must have been a fortune. Years later, I took the thing apart to get a stuck tape out, and saw first hand how many individual assemblies and parts the thing had. Production costs for that type of unit must have been astronomical. And this was a Mono, 2-head VCR. We had a library of tapes, with a few dozen in steady rotation for my sister and me.

I should also mention that music and technology were not totally separate from one another in my upbringing. At some point around 1988, my mom bought me a generic-branded candy apple red Walkman from Kmart, and my first tape, Bon Jovi’s New Jersey. I wouldn’t listen to that album now if you gave me $20. Unlistenable. My first tape would’ve been Guns N’ Roses’ Appetite For Destruction if I’d had my way, but my mom didn’t like the cursing on it. I eventually amassed a collection of a couple dozen tapes and listened to the Walkman constantly, even though the headphones were cheap and hurt my ears. Eventually I got a cheap hand-me-down boombox for listening to tapes in my room.

My grandparents bought me a 13” TV and an NES for Christmas and my birthday, respectively, in 1990 I believe. (That’s one good thing about January birthdays: It’s like double Christmas.) Let me tell about the countless joyful hours I spent playing Nintendo by myself and with my friends. When I wasn’t playing, I was reading Nintendo Power magazine, usually on the toilet. My mom and dad could be heard at our house around that time yelling, “Are you STILL in there?!?!” Back then, my brain was a sponge. I could damn near memorize a whole issue of NP in a couple days. For example, in Super Mario Brothers 3, I memorized all 8 configurations of 16 flip cards in the flip card mini-game. Those of you who’ve played it know what I’m talking about. What can I say? I was obsessed. I was one of the few kids I knew with my own TV, and even without cable, it still ruled! I felt less special when my sister got one the following year, but whatever. And I really don’t know what I would have done without my NES. Being the geek that I was, my social life in the early 90’s was less that stellar. Let’s just say that video games, in general, got me and countless other youths of my generation through many a sad and lonely day.

I got my first CD player for Christmas around 1992. My first 3 CD’s, were Nevemind by Nirvana, MC Hammer’s Please Hammer Don’t Hurt ‘Em, and Music For The People by Marky Mark and the Funky Bunch. I’ll admit that I couldn’t listen to the last 20 seconds of Territorial Pissings from Nevermind because it scared me. I thought it sounded like Kurt Cobain was being choked to death. Anyway, I traded in my NES to a local game store for cash so I could go halves with my parents on a Super Nintendo (SNES) around 1994. This brought Super Mario World, Super Mario All-Stars, and Street Fighter II, among other games, into my room. Awesome! The graphics and sound were incredible, and the games were just as fun as NES, if not more. It was also around this time that my Mom bought the family a Word Processor. For the uninitiated, imagine a typewriter with a monochrome LCD screen less than the size of an iPhone that, when printing a document, sounded like a jackhammer. “Frustrating to use” is being kind.

The pivotal moment in my geek evolution came in January 1997 when I went with my mom to the Gateway Country Store in Upper Dublin, PA to buy our first PC, a Gateway 2000 Pentium II running Windows 95 at a whopping 233MHz. Of course, we didn’t leave the store with a PC. Noooooo, we had to wait 2 weeks for it to arrive via mail, in the then oh-so-envious cowprint box. Even though I didn’t know how to use it save for opening Word, typing and printing, I loved it. There was a fun motorcycle game called Redline Racer that came with it, which actually ran on our PC’s meager hardware. We got AOL at some point, just like 90% of computer-owning Americans. I began to realize then just how powerful the Internet could be, crude as it was then. I’m in high school at this time, and I’m beginning to develop an interest in the machines available to me and computer courses offered. One such course that I took was Computer-based Media, or something similar. It was taught by (let’s call him) Mr. D, a kindred spirit and fellow geek. I owe much of my success in life to this man. Mr. D took time to help me understand the fundamentals of PC and Mac multimedia. He allowed me to stay after school on his time to help me complete my projects and to even go so far as to let me use his personal internet dialup account (either CompuServe or Prodigy) unsupervised. Let me stress that last bit: unsupervised. This type of freedom and access is unheard of today. He trusted me, and in return, I never abused the privilege. Rather, I learned how to use a search engine (Altavista) and move files between computing platforms, among other things. His trust and tutelage made it clear that computing was for me as a career. This led directly to my choosing computer engineering as a college major, which of course led to my current standing in life. I’m extremely grateful to Mr. D for all that he did for me as a tech-curious teenager.

Rather than delve into my college years, where my geekdom became official, at least on paper, I think I’ll wrap this up. Technology has had an effect on my life, to varying degrees, since early childhood. From video games and VCR’s to PC’s and, currently, home theater, I feel like my life has been bettered at every turn because of technology. Many of the things in my life that I enjoy have come from the Internet. I hope that the first generation of kids who don’t know what dial-up Internet is realize how good they have it, technologically speaking.