Devices Worthy of “Machine of the Year?”

To say that the Time “Person of the Year” is essentially honorary is to dive deep into the ocean of understatement. While it was once considered a big deal, its relevance has mirrored the decline of print media. At this point, no one really cares who wins – they just care who didn’t win, so that it can be used to prove bias. Just another cudgel in a perpetual rage cycle.

It’s too bad, too, because it used to be interesting. For example, in 1982, Time picked the personal computer as its “Machine of the Year” instead of a person, the only time a machine has been the honoree (the less said about “You,” the desperate attempt to capture Internet 2.0 buzz in 2006, the better). The essay in the first article is kind of fascinating – not due to any great insights on computers (it doesn’t have any) but as a time capsule. It is deliberately hokey, but captures that weird feeling of the early 1980s, when nature was receding into the vast parking lots of shopping malls, but at the same time a whole new frontier was being opened electronically.

Machine Of The Year Choices

So the computer was a great choice for 1982, even though they didn’t have any idea just how much it would change everything. The ability to do counting and a few other tasks seemed cool then, but even though ARPANET had been around, the internet was still just a barely-known pipe dream. It was still almost a year before Matthew Broderick taught us you could “hack” into something. It being the end of the year and all, we got to thinking – if Time chose to honor more machines as “People of the Year,” which machines might get the nod?

1970 – The Mouse – machine of the year?

Ok, to be fair, we really don’t blame Time for not picking up on this one. Invented in 1968 by Douglas Englebert and Bill English, the mouse changed how we would interface with computers before most people even dreamed of having a computer in the home. They are still absolutely amazing and when you really think about them, you wonder how they work. How does it know where I want to go? Instead of a series of typed commands, you could make things happen just by rolling and clicking, making the computer accessible to nearly anyone. It’s safe to say that the PC revolution probably wouldn’t have happened without the mouse.

Actual Winner: Willy Brandt, Chancellor of West Germany. Worked to improve relations with the East. Nothing but respect here for Willy Brandt, who, like the mouse, didn’t see the full fruits of his work for years.

1989 – Gameboy

This isn’t just pure love and nostalgia. The Gameboy was amazing and it changed how a lot of us played games, but I don’t think I knew at the time just how amazing of a machine it really was. It seemed a natural progression to go from arcades to home systems to portable ones, but the Gameboy really showed the desire for a portable anything (much like the Walkman) and got a generation primed not just to love easy and accessible technology, but also to invent it. The Gameboy reduced the huge to the personal and altered our relationship with technology.

Actual winner: Mikhail Gorbachev. I’ll give him this, but only because I think glasnost helped give us Tetris.

1998 – Wireless Networks

This is a touch vague, because there isn’t wasn’t an official year when wireless overtook dial-up (and millions still use dial-up anyway), but this year seems right. The Internet was no longer just a hideous series of beeps followed by interminably slow loading times. It could be incredibly fast, which led to more images, more gifs, more videos, and more avenues of knowledge and expression. The dial-up internet was astonishing, but the age of wireless changed everything.

Actual winner (tie): Bill Clinton and Ken Starr. What a gross and stupid year that was. Huzzah, wireless!

2007 – Smartphone – machine of the year?

Phones that could access the internet weren’t new when the first iPhone came out, but as we know, the iPhone changed how we viewed mobile devices forever, with its touchscreen, intuitive user interface, and sleek design. It could play music and take pictures and suddenly, to an extent that I don’t think we’ve fully grokked, it became possible to essentially have the sum of human knowledge in your purse or pocket. Bar fights about Jerry Koosman’s lifetime ERA or the works of Thucydides could be settled instantly (3.36 and “pretty good,” respectively).

Actual winner: Vladimir Putin. (Comment glowered into deletion.)

2014 – Health apps – machine of the year?

These have also been around for a while, but this seemed to be the year that they have achieved critical mass. The great thing about health apps is that by allowing us to monitor our behavior, we alter it. Heck, I am terrified of letting down my step counter. It judges me. And that’s great – our health information, the most important information about our bodies, essentially, was almost impossible to access. Now we have nearly everything. In the short and long run, that changes our relationship with ourselves. I almost can’t think of a single reason why we’ll still need medical professionals…

Actual winner: Ebola fighters. OK, I take that back. Thank goodness for these guys! Our technology is amazing, but we still need people.

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