As the 1980s came to a close, a curious thing happened to American consumers: they began to really understand what the word "upgrade" meant. This realization occurred thanks to a magical fusion of technological advancement and capitalistic opportunity: the video game console.
In the future-world of the late eighties, a post-crash video game market had firmly and finally established itself as a legitimate business sector — not a fad or addendum to the burgeoning PC market or an arcade also-ran — but a stable, viable industry unto itself. Nintendo and Sega waged war through most of the decade, battling for the hearts, minds, and dollars of the American consumer, all the while establishing brands that were becoming as recognizable as Coke or Pepsi. The fanbases were fervent, the rewards fantastic, the potential seemingly limitless. It was this particular kind of technological potential that seemed unique to this moment — but would prove to be much more permanent and important than anyone could have guessed.
Prior to the 1980s, most consumer electronics were bought like appliances. They were major purchases. They were not disposable, replaceable, or cheap. When you needed something, you did research, you shopped around, you priced and repriced. You looked for deals, and when you bought, you bought for years. Decades even. Buying a television was like buying a refrigerator: you would own it until it no longer functioned and could no longer be serviced. But the almost-post-Cold War, globalized era of the '80s helped to change all that. More players got in the game. Manufacturing, now outsourced, became cheaper. Technology became a commodity, components shrunk, new economies boomed. Product release cycles quickened. The appetite for the new, especially in the US, was perpetually whetted by bombastic and hyper-sexualized marketing — one of the more fantastic artifacts of the mid-'80s.
As the decade ended, however, the true harbinger of a new world was revealed in an unlikely place: 16-bit video game consoles. Although it was NEC and the TurboGrafx-16 (dubbed the PC Engine in Japan) that actually led the charge to "next-generation" consoles, Sega managed to capture the zeitgeist (and dollars) of the moment with the Genesis — a fitting name for a console that would legitimately herald not just a new era in video gaming, but in consumer perception. There was to be something new, something you wanted, something just like the last one, but better. Stronger. Faster. Familiar, but at once totally different. 8-bit was the old version. 16-bit was the "upgrade." And everyone could have it if they wanted. This was not about buying for the ages — this was about buying for the now.
The differences between the old and new were explicit in the marketing of 16-bit consoles. They were essential. Better graphics? Check. Better sound? Check. Bigger games? Check. More interestingly, however, was how the similarities of the systems were marketed — an implicit nod to the lineage. Remember, this was the Super Nintendo Entertainment System. This wasn't the first time something had been a replacement for an older version, but it was the first time it felt like part of an ongoing process: the process of technological innovation in the realm of the consumer, clearly visible and clearly marketed to the average buyer. The upgrade was officially for sale. The Age of the Upgrade had started in earnest.
I believe it was this moment — the moment of the Genesis, TurboGrafx-16, and eventually the SNES — that changed consumer attitudes about technology in our lives forever. This was the moment that the consumer learned that the thing you already owned was going to be replaced, and the replacement was going to be awesome. A more awesome version of the same thing. And there would be something after that, too. Consumer objects like cars had been aggressively sold on a similar pattern of updates, but the differences between model years was nearly nonexistent. Cars were expensive, bought on decade-long cycles, and offered bombast in marketing but almost no discernible differences to a driver. Game consoles were cheap, widely available to everyone, and could easily demonstrate exactly how new and different they were.
Apple came to understand the power of the upgrade once it began making wide-market consumer products like the iPod. Before the gadget-as-accessory era, Apple was excellent at making and selling products to a relatively niche audience, but it hadn't really perfected its ability to capture the want-need upgrade cycle — mostly because the computers it sold were far too expensive to be bought on a regular basis. The iPod and iTunes provided Apple with an entry point into the consumer market at large, and started the march towards the consumer technology product launch as a public, front-page event. It perfected the cycle of the upgrade with the iPhone, and everyone else followed suit. Now the entire industry accepts that consumers will want the "new" every 12 months. The major carriers have remade their subscription cycles around it, the tech press rallies around it, the upstarts fear and avoid it.
Before the mid-1950's, the word "upgrade" simply meant an "upward slope." Now it's not the road that rises, but our tools that guide us up that road. It makes sense that in order to understand our new world we had to find new words — or new meanings for old words.
No consumer is surprised when Apple releases a new iPhone, and they are rarely impressed these days by a better camera, faster CPU, or elongated screen. This is not special, this is normal.
We have now become defined by our penchant and desire for the upgrade. The market has become conditioned by the upgrade. Companies live or die by the upgrade (just ask Microsoft, BlackBerry, or Palm). It is the sun around which the industry of technology orbits. The product release cycle is punctual, predictable... and increasingly underwhelming. And there is a reason for this.
Innovation doesn't happen on a product release cycle. It cannot come every 12 months.
But this isn't an editorial about consumer disappointment and company failures — because I don't actually think that's the big story. The story that others have written is that "we've stopped innovating" or "2013 was a year of disappointment." But that's far from the truth. The truth is that our opportunity and interest in innovation has never been bigger or more exciting. When everyone is an early adopter, the expectations are raised, and when expectations get raised, someone usually rises to the occasion.
Smartphone adoption in this country has grown to 64 percent. Eighty percent of new mobile-phone buyers choose a smartphone. Only six years ago, the vast majority of people had no idea that a phone could do anything other than make a phone call. The concept of "apps" did not exist at all. The idea of using a phone as a GPS unit or a camera was laughable. Twitter and Facebook were nascent distractions. Netflix actually mailed DVDs to people.
We haven't stopped innovating — it's just that our appetite for what constitutes innovation has become much larger and moves much faster. Our understanding of how technology works and what it can do has simply evolved. As a result, what might have been exciting even a couple of years ago has started to become rote, common. What the average consumer can imagine exceeds the ability of a mere phone-maker or computer company to provide — but it doesn't exceed the ability of someone to build.
I think that's why our newest and most exciting innovations have started to look a lot more like world-altering initiatives, major political policies, and massive infrastructure upheavals. Suddenly we seem awash in scary, sexy billionaires who want to share their Tony Stark fantasies with the world.
And what do those fantasies look like?
A privatized (and actualized) Space Race. Virtual reality that actually works. An all-electric luxury car that is upending the auto industry. A drone-delivery system that could revolutionize how we mail things. Hyperloops. Thermostats and smoke detectors that learn how you live. Tech startups as TV studios. Computers you wear like glasses. A pure, digital cryptocurrency. Cars that drive themselves. Hamburgers grown in a lab. Printers that seem more like matter generators. Personal DNA data on demand.
Technology is not a novelty — it is the only way forward. And as the chocolatey shell of the technological fringe has slid ever closer to the gooey, nougat center of the mainstream, it has never been more clear that the only way we progress — as nations, as humans — is through the mastery and exploitation of technology. New upgrades for a new age.
That doesn't mean that we don't still love a good camera update, or watches that act like smartphones, or a personal digital assistant who tells us we're about to miss a flight. It means that we dream bigger now — for the first time in a long time — and we're dreaming a collective dream, one we speak out loud, across cultures and continents. A dream you can sell. A dream you can buy.
It's the dream of the upgrade. Of the early adopter. Things are going to get better. They have to get better. There is no other way. The next thing is just around the corner.
And it is awesome.