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When it comes to technology, the ’90s were sort of … awkward. Sure, the pieces were there, but we didn’t really know how to make the best of them.
Video game graphics that blew our minds look like sand paintings in retrospect. Even though we had the Internet, we hadn’t yet perfected its primary uses (cat videos and abusing strangers on social media). Palm pilots and Tamogatchis happened. It was a mess!
But it was a beautiful mess, and the crazes we once could barely believe were real are now ones we can look back on fondly – from the comfort of our shiny, modern computing devices.
The TalkBoy is a perfect symbol of ’90s technology: Clunky, obsolete, tied to a beloved ‘90s franchise and featuring a payoff that – for the time – was an amazing novelty, but now is positively medieval.
It was seriously just a video cassette in a little player upon which you could record and play back your voice. No part of that setup is still relevant. But because Kevin McAllister used it in “Home Alone 2,” everyone had to have one – and to be honest, they sort of ruled then.
Lest ye forget, the TalkBoy also had a cooler, sleeker cousin: the Yak Bak. (But the Yak Baks could only record, like, a few seconds of sound. It was the Vine of ’90s audio toys).
If you were a grade school kid in the ’90s, you were probably responsible for the deaths of hundreds of little pixelated monsters called Tamagotchis.
These little egg-shaped doohickeys were originally from Japan, and taught children some important facts of life: Being a caring, nurturing person is a real hassle, and if you don’t feed your pets they will grow angel wings and HAUNT YOU.
3. 1998 iMac
Be honest. These things still look ridiculously cool. Why did the gummi-bear-colored computer trend never take off? Did we fly too close to the sun? Maybe it’s because you could fit 10 working computers from 2017 in one of its big, beautiful, bulbous chassis.
People used to say “beep me” and it was a really cool thing. If someone had a pager (aka, a beeper), they were extremely important. They had to be reachable at all times, but only in an archaic, indirect way: someone pages you and then you have to find a telephone and call them back.
Meanwhile, today’s grade-schoolers are walking around with fully-functioning smart phones like they’re expecting a call from the president at any moment. Time is weird.
5. Palm Pilots
Speaking of smart phones, let’s take a moment to remember the honorable Palm Pilot. Another trapping of Very Important Business People and the grandmother of hand-held computer devices, the Palm Pilot was a brand-new ’90s invention that changed the game.
It was a PDA - a “personal digital assistant” - that allowed you to organize the Very Important Things going on in your life with a fancy stylus.
But, the game moves on quickly! Looking back, the first Palm Pilots had all the futuristic appeal of a parking meter. The display wasn’t lit, and it had a measly few hundred KILOBYTES of memory. Kilobytes! For the record, if you have an 8 GB phone right now, you have the memory of 16,000 early Palm Pilots.
6. Electronic diaries
If you were a kid, and you wanted to feel tech-savvy but didn’t have the need or the money for a Palm Pilot, you probably got an electronic diary. These candy-colored clamshell deals were completely useless. They stored names and addresses and dates and things, but on a tiny screen that was so difficult to navigate, it was easier to just write it all down.
They made some for adults too, who presumably also decided they were useless and went back to writing stuff in a day planner, which is still the way to go and will always be the way to go. Shout out to papyrus, the one tech craze that will never die.
These tiny, bizarre audio devices got popular amid the glittery frenzy of the new millennium. They were little keychain-type cartridges that played one-minute excerpts of pop songs, and the audio was so poor it sounded like it was recorded inside of a meat grinder. Did anyone care? No. This was before MP3 players and they were so tiny and cool, every kid had to have them.
They even made adorable little boomboxes to stick them in, so maybe this was less about music appreciation and more about shilling another cute gadget.
8. Car phones
Our first big dance with cellular phones came in the form of … our cars. Car phones were another Very Important Technology for Very Important People, and they either came in briefcases that had to be stored and charged in the car, or they were straight up installed directly in the car. These existed way before the ’90s, but the decade was a swan song for a technology that seemed impossibly cool and futuristic right up until the end.
9. Video game graphics
Do you remember Final Fantasy VII? The seminal video game that came out in 1997, and completely Blew. Our. Minds? The graphics they were –
Oh my, the graphics.
Okay, so they basically looked like balloon animals, but at the time it was a whole new world. Now we have this:
Let that be a lesson: Never forget where you came from. We may have photorealistic graphics and fast Internet and unlimited music and tiny computers that put the entire history of knowledge in our hands ….
But it was barely 20 years ago that we amused ourselves by recording gibberish on audio cassettes. Stay humble.
Explore the ’90s technology wave on “The Nineties,” Sundays at 9 p.m. ET/PT only on CNN.