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CE From A 1986 College Dorm Room

For some reason, I love coincidences. Having two seemingly disparate events combining to make something new is cool to me.

So when I learned that 2006 marked not only the 20th year since I graduated from the State University of New York at Plattsburgh, but also the year TWICE began publication, I just knew I had to take advantage of this happenstance. What are the odds? At least 3-to-1. So with the 1980s music station on my Yahoo! Internet radio turned on as a mood setter, I went to work.

Looking back at my college years, I realized that 20 years ago the CE industry and I were, at least on a good day, nothing more than precocious adolescents. During the ensuing years, we went from our rather unsophisticated start to the fully developed, complicated beings we are today, again at least on a good day.

Unbeknownst to me, a tectonic shift was taking place during my four years at school. As I was busily settling in at Plattsburgh, and by settling in I mean having an “Animal House”-level good time, Sony and Philips were conducting the much more sober exercise of shipping the first CD players into the Japanese market. The U.S. launch would not come until the following year. As a poor college student, I didn’t pay much attention to products that I could not afford, so the CD player’s introduction did not impact my life. I was still surrounded by tapes and record albums, and my biggest fear was that during a party, a record would get scratched beyond repair.

At the same time I was looking under sofa cushions to find the $3 needed to go to the weekly all-you-can-drink fest at a local bar, some joker named Michael Dell was hand-assembling personal computers and selling them out of his University of Texas at Austin dorm room. In retrospect, Dell might have made the correct choice in how to spend his time, but he probably never stood on a bar stool belting out American Pie at 3 a.m. So I consider myself much richer in life experience, if not money, than Mike.

Then there were the good folks at Microsoft starting their conquest of the computing world and at Apple, Steve Jobs helped push the PC into the home.

But when I first showed up at school, none of this was obvious to me. So while 1986 is the starting point for this TWICE/Olenick adventure, it made sense to me that a complete picture of how CE impacted my life during the Reagan years was in order.

That was easy. There was no impact.

The contents of my college rooms from 1982 to 1986 probably did not differ all that much from what Plattsburgh students experienced 20 years earlier. A list of all the electronic items found in my dorm room, a closet-sized affair I shared with two other guys my first year, could be counted on one hand. The three of us together owned a boom box, a clock radio and a small refrigerator. I also owned a Smith-Corona electric typewriter, which filled in the fourth and final plug, on the occasion that I decided to break from my good times and do some work. In a way, it was a good thing there was nothing else because the two electric outlets in our room were maxed out.

The pay phone in the dorm’s hallway was our main method to communicate with anyone outside shouting range. One phone, 50 guys, and we all still managed to call mom and dad once a week to beg for money. Our voicemail service was whoever happened to be nearby when the phone rang, and then you had to hope that guy had the presence of mind to leave a note on your door’s message board. It was comprised of a felt pen, piece of string and whiteboard.

Three years later, the only addition to my CE collection was a gift my grandfather bought me, 13-inch Sylvania color TV. Luckily, cable had made it to Plattsburgh by then, so my roommates and I could watch the girls in the Robert Palmer and Duran Duran videos on MTV 24/7.

By the time my school career was closing, the first faint light of what would eventually turn into today’s world of consumer technology began to appear.

In 1982, students at Plattsburgh didn’t have access to any computers outside a computer science class. By 1986 there were about 30 dumb terminals in the school library basement for the entire 5,000 member student body to share. Those computers were capable of handling two tasks: word processing and printing out your work on a dot-matrix printer. Even using the school’s “real” computer was not easy. When I took a class to learn the computer language Fortran, I used punch cards to create my programs, and it took forever for the computer, the size of a VW Bug, to run it. If it didn’t work, you had no choice other than to go through all the cards manually and look for an error, one of the many reasons I quit that class.

Although the Sony Walkman and its knockoff competitors had been around for several years, they were far from a common sight on campus.

A VCR was such a rare commodity among the students that it still stands out in my mind when I first saw one in this student’s dorm room. The school newspaper was running a Best Dorm Room contest in 1985, and I remember my asking the guy what that giant metal box was near the TV. I’m sure this fellow, whose name is lost to history, has already bought a pre-802.11n wireless router so he can watch TV on his laptop while sitting on his deck. God bless those wonderful early adopters.

Basically, the entire foundation of what TWICE now covers was laid down while I was busy learning how to be a journalist. (If only I had tried harder at Fortran!)