Although 1980s technology is recognizable today, by modern standards, it was very primitive. Yet I can’t think of another decade that was so obsessed with technology. Growing up in the 80s probably is what made me a technologist, and I know I’m not alone in that. Many of my peers went the same direction I did for the same reasons. So let’s take a look at 80s technology and how it shaped the world to come.
Subsequent decades railed against the 1980s in many ways, but you have to learn how to walk before you learn to run. It’s clear that the 1980s was, if nothing else, that turning point. While 1989 technology is primitive compared to 30 years later, elements of modern technology were present in 1989 that weren’t visible at all in 1980.
1980s obsession with technology
In the early 1980s, the retailer Radio Shack branded itself “the technology store.” And although it’s mostly a memory today, in the 80s, Radio Shack had thousands of stores. And when it came to technology, it had everything you wanted. Radio Shack sold computers, stereo equipment, handheld electronic games, and late in the decade, cellular phones. If you were a tinkering type, the back of the store had thousands of components and a line of books that taught you how to build your own electronic gizmos.
1980s technology found its way into pop culture too. The popular TV show Knight Rider was about a car that was computerized and sentient, even god-like. Computer hacking was the subject of movies like War Games and Cloak and Dagger. The hero of the movie Short Circuit was a lovable robot. Even movies that weren’t all about technology had scenes, such as the movie Ferris Bueller’s Day Off when the protagonist hacked into his school’s computer and changed records.
You can hear it in music, too. Especially in the first half of the decade, music featured synthesizers so heavily it was almost gratuitous.
The contradiction of 1980s technology
Carl Sagan famously said, “We live in a society exquisitely dependent on science and technology, in which hardly anyone knows anything about science and technology.” He published that in early 1990, so he was standing on the edge of the 80s when he wrote it.
I think both then and now, technology threatened the old order of things, and that made people uncomfortable. Today that’s perhaps 30 percent of the population and it only seems like more because that part of the population is incredibly vocal, and it also makes clever use of the technology it hates.
Today there’s a computer in everything, but that trend started in the 1980s. Today we downplay it, but for a time in the 1980s, it was trendy to make things look computerized even when they weren’t. Chrysler and Nissan took it a step further and made cars talk. They were nowhere near as sophisticated as KITT from Knight Rider, but they talked. So did kids’ toys. Texas Instruments had a popular line of educational toys that included Speak and Spell and Speak and Math, which were essentially small handheld computers with membrane keyboards that talked you through spelling and math.
The IBM PC came out in 1981, and Apple had its successful Apple II line, and Commodore sold a few million Commodore 64s. These computers and a few others defined the first half of the decade.
It was in 1984 that Apple famously introduced the Macintosh, which introduced the modern graphical user interface, with user-friendly menus and a mouse. A year later, Commodore introduced the Amiga, which added multitasking to the mix. It turned out that 1985 was a pivotal year for computing.
Intel spent the decade playing catch-up. Intel and its licensees probably sold more CPUs in the 1980s than anyone else, but the computers they powered more closely resembled 1970s computing than 1990s computing. By 1986 Intel had CPUs that held their own, but operating systems that took full advantage of their power didn’t appear until the 1990s.
1980s computing compared to today
1980s PCs seem old-fashioned today, but you could sit down at a 1980s Macintosh, Amiga, or Atari ST and use it, even if they seem a bit rough around the edges and more than a little bit slow. The Internet was still a few years off and telecommunications was primitive. But Internet-like technology did exist. The computer on your desk or in your lap long ago eclipsed the power of the 1980s Cray X-MP supercomputer. But by late decade, it was at least clear what modern computing would look like, even if the 32-bit operating systems of the 80s were flawed.
The attitude toward computers in the 1980s was mixed. On one hand, there were people who asked why anyone would ever need a computer in their home. On the other hand, I remember a friend pointing to a house a block away and saying, “They have computers,” in a hushed and very jealous tone.
Affordable synthesizers changed the way musicians made music. For a few years, the synth pushed the guitar back into its former role as a rhythm instrument, and gave popular music a weird, otherworldly sound. Today you either love it or hate it. Maybe that was true then too.
But 80s technology also changed how we listened to music. The Sony Walkman was the iPod of its day and it started a craze. Sony first released it in the summer of 1979 but improved it throughout the 1980s. Walking around listening to the music of your choice on headphones wasn’t possible before. Each cassette only carried 60-90 minutes’ worth of songs, but you could choose the songs.
Today we can carry around more music than a large library would have been able to hold in the 1980s, But it was the Sony Walkman that set the stage for it.
Music had another important development in the 1980s: the compact disc. The CD was the first digital medium. It was more durable than vinyl or tape, and it didn’t wear out from repeated play. Today’s audiophiles prefer vinyl, but in the 1980s, CDs were revolutionary, combining digital technology with lasers. What could be more 80s than that?
And yes, CDs stored the music in digital form, although they were a physical medium. Today we associate digital media with delivery by computer, without ever having anything to hold in your hands. The 1980s set the stage for that, but fully digital delivery and consumption was still a few decades away.
In 1985, computer pioneer Gary Kildall said on his TV show The Computer Chronicles that after the first generation of home computers, “people have gone back to their VCRs and their TV sets now, and to get consumers’ attention, the second-generation machines have to have higher resolution, more color, faster animation, better sound capability.”
The VCR was another example of a technology that had been invented earlier, but it took off in the 1980s. The VCR made it possible to record television for playback later, so you could time-shift and not have to adjust your schedule in order to watch a program on TV. It also made watching movies at home possible. A trip to the video store to rent movies to watch over the weekend became part of many people’s lifestyle in the 1980s. Blockbuster Video was the largest and most famous national chain, but virtually every town had at least one video rental store, even before Blockbuster came to town.
Today the idea of watching movies and series on demand at home is something we take for granted, but it had its roots in the popularity of the VCR in the 1980s. It was much less convenient than what we have today. The tapes took up a lot of space if you bought them or (hush) copied them, and the tapes wore out and you had to rewind them when you were done. But it was a revolutionary idea at the time, and one that carried a great deal of resistance. But like most disruptive technologies, the VCR brought in an industry that hadn’t existed previously.
The lesson of the VCR
The VCR threatened the corporate economic order. But it turned out that the new markets it created, namely sales and rental of content, were bigger than the market it destroyed, which was second and third runs in the theaters. I saw Star Wars in the theater sometime in 1980 or 1981, after the Empire Strikes Back came out. The VCR ended that. But it also extended the franchise after the last movie of that first trilogy came out. Kids would turn on the movie while they played with the toys. That extended the life of both of them, resulting in more money for the studio and its licensees.
The consumers are more valuable than the content. And while people did use their VCRs to copy movies, when it became affordable, people would buy them. Consumers will buy content as long as they aren’t being extorted, but it does become very difficult to get consumer to pay for something after they get used to getting it for free.
Of course no mention of 1980s technology is complete without video games. The 80s saw three generations of home video game consoles. And it was during the 80s that arcades became a staple of malls. The games are quaint by today’s standards, but they retain a following. Like early rock ‘n’ roll, the basic elements were all present early on and the ones that got those basics right endure no matter how many decades pass. The best 80s video games were easy to learn but hard to master, and that was what kept you coming back again and again, even after you beat the game.
1980s video games differ in one major way from modern games. Games from the 80s tended to be solo projects or the work of small teams, much like music. Modern games tend to be large, big-budget productions, more like movies.
It seems like the best place to end a discussion of 80s technology is with cellular phones. The 80s were the decade they became commercially available. They were expensive. They were phones and phones only. The only thing you could do with them was make and receive calls. And they were huge. And I don’t mean popular. I suppose they were popular, but they were hulking beasts. Frequently we called them car phones rather than mobile phones, because they were too big and heavy for people to be willing to carry them around like we do today.
The possibility of being able to integrate cameras, a GPS, and a store full of electronic gadgets into one device and call it a smartphone took a couple of decades. One of the reasons people cite for the fall of Radio Shack is that the smartphone integrated absolutely everything Radio Shack ever sold into a device about the size of a deck of cards.
But in the 80s, nothing exuded status quite like a cellular phone did. It ensured that people who needed to be reached could be reached. It meant never again would someone miss a deal simply because they were on the road, on the way to a meeting. Today, everyone expects everyone to have one.
Perhaps that’s the nicest thing about 1980s technology. During that decade, we could see all of this wonderful new technology, but very few people could afford all of it. Today the future we envisioned in the 1980s is accessible to most people.