Tuesday, January 18, 2011

The Mother of Invention

No, I'm not talking about Frank Zappa.

I got a Facebook message from someone I knew in high school, asking why I didn't invent Facebook. My answer was very simple: I didn't invent it because I didn't need it.

Think about it, we tend to invent, or want to see invented, things that we see a personal need for; and I didn't have a personal need for something like Facebook. At least not from where I sat.

Mark Zuckerberg, on the other hand, was in a different seat, in a different world. Actually, his seat was in a world that I belonged to almost 40 years ago: that of a college student.

I don't remember what the official name of the 1974 pictorial guide to the freshman class at Syracuse University was called, but I do remember its nickname: The Pigbook, a nickname I heard it got because so many of the girls in it looked like pigs. Many other colleges had something similar, some other version of a "facebook" that was given out to all the freshmen. Back in the 70s, no one could've imagined turning the campus facebook into something you did through the school's computing systems, and definitely no one thought of connecting all the colleges, and even the whole world the same way. The technology just didn't exist. But the 21st century is a far different place than the 1970s, and now the idea behind Facebook seems like a no-brainer.

But still, it's not something that I particularly had a need to invent; because I wasn't a freshman guy trying to find out about that cute girl on page 43 anymore. Heck, the few times I actually tried to meet someone from the SU "facebook" ended up in disaster.

But there are things I would have invented, and actually did invent, because they were important to me.

First of all there's the backpack. Now I know what you're thinking. I can't possibly be taking credit for inventing something that soldiers and Boy Scouts had been using for decades before I was born. And you're right, I'm not. What I invented was using them for carrying books around in. After breaking off the handle of yet another briefcase by carrying too many books in it, I decided that I needed something that could handle all the stuff that this little geek was hauling around. So I went to the Boy Scout department at Muir's (our local department store), and got the smallest backpack I could find. After all, I wasn't going for a week-long hike, I was just carrying books and stuff around East Orange High School.

I was made fun of at first, but within 10 years everyone was using backpacks to carry their school stuff in.

Then there's the Walkman. Yes, I'm actually going to claim to have invented the Walkman...or at least to have come up with the idea behind it. I needed a way to listen to my cassette tapes on choir tour without disturbing anyone else on the bus. So I went out and bought a small cassette player and some large stereo headphones. Worked like a charm.

Sony introduced the Walkman a year later. I swear, someone from choir must've told them about it.

But the one really big thing I would've invented, or at least wanted to see someone invent, came from the fact that my house was being taken over by my collection of almost 1000 45s and a couple of hundred LPs and CDs not to mention 100 or so custom mix tapes by year or artist. Not only were all these records and tapes taking over my living room, but I had no good way to keep track of them. Even my Library Science skills couldn't help me.

Then in 2001 the iPod was introduced. I knew exactly what this was when I saw it. I knew that this would not only allow me to eventually get rid of every piece of vinyl in my house, but it would also allow me to clear out the space that had been taken up by $1200 of stereo equipment. An iPod and a set of $20 speakers from Radio Shack would do the trick.

Forget Facebook, the iPod is the thing I would've invented, not Facebook. Because this was the thing that was important to me.

Besides, with my teenaged history of stalking girls, it would've been just a little too creepy if I had invented Facebook.

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