How the tech toy century has troubled Santa's sack

Bell Labs made it bulge then Gordon Moore made it deflate

Opinion It is, as the more observant may have noticed, Christmas time again. In all decent households, this marks the traditional giving and receiving of tech toys, many millions of which will have been hauled around the world by Santa and his reindeer.

The very best aspect of such a magical supply chain is that it eases the consideration of each gizmo's carbon footprint. A few reindeer farts fall far short of the fleet of cargo aircraft that would otherwise be needed, so that's all right then.

It's the content of Santa's prezzie bag that most interests us, and in this respect technology first made Beardy's job easier, then harder again. As humans got better at consumer electronics, new products and categories created Christmas choices like the Devonian spawned tetrapods.

The electronic gadget as a gift option first crawled onto land a hundred years ago, with the birth of broadcast radio spawning the crystal set as a desirable doodad for the proto-geeks of the day. These were assembled out of a collection of components – long wire antennas, coils, capacitors, headphones, and the crystal detector itself. You had to collect the set to make it all work, hence the name that adheres to tellies to this day.

The crystal detector was the first semiconductor, a diode usually made of a lump of lead ore and a springy wire: it's safe to say that nobody trying to coax the wild wireless waves to speak in the mid-1920s would have any idea what the little rusty rock would have spawned a hundred years later.

Not that things didn't change fast. Radio's insane popularity pushed developments in plastics, miniaturisation and thermionic devices – vacuum tubes that enabled electronic amplification, transforming the making and consumption of music. By the mid 1930s, TV was materializing, although it barely poked its beak out of the eggshell before the war shut it down. Santa had just got used to delivering gaily coloured Bakelite wirelesses before retreating to the North Pole for the duration.

He came back with a bang. All that research into radar fed straight into the TV industry, and Matterhorn-sized piles of military surplus components gave inventors, many well-trained, all they needed to make audio amplifiers, tape recorders – another whizzo wheeze from the war – walkie-talkies, and so many other gadgets. Alongside all this, Bell Labs coughed politely and popped out the crystal detector's three-legged mutant offspring, the transistor.

For 20 years, consumer gear multiplied, getting smaller, cheaper, and full of variety. Electric guitars willed the airwaves as cheap transistor radios relayed their rebel yell to a most receptive generation. All analog, of course, until the '70s saw the results of Gordon Moore's prediction about integrated circuits coming true, and the first digital watches and calculators making small bulges in Santa's otherwise overloaded toy bag.

Then it all went wrong. The '80s started out as the golden age for consumer electronics, with companies like RadioShack producing Bible-thick catalogs of desirable video recorders, Hi-Fis, portable everythings, CB radios, telephone answering machines, not to mention actual toys that bleeped, flashed, and whirred. And what to make of these strange new game boxes that plugged into the family TV and moved glowing blocks around to the sound of robotic grunting?

For the first time, households had more tiny flashing lights in January than they had on the tree in December. But hidden in those catalogs were home computers, tragically expensive, mostly mute and monochrome, with the microscopic memory of a politician's WhatsApp message cache. The world paused, shrugged, and went on buying the shiny and the analog into the '90s.

In the blink of an eye, historically speaking, it was all over. Twenty years on, the CD ate vinyl, only for the new format to unwittingly lay the groundwork for the pure digital versions that could leap around the ever-growing internet. TV went digital to free up airwaves for the newfangled mobile phones, themselves going digital – and in leaped that darn internet again, making the whole idea of broadcasts seem as antiquated as a crystal set.

You know the rest. Mobile devices do everything analogue gadgets ever did, not only shuttering factories and outlets but completely mucking up whole swathes of Santa's traditional offering. You can't put an app in a stocking or gift-wrap an ebook. Even a brief pulse of palatable peripherals – CD-ROMs, sound cards, processor upgrades – that kept many a tech-head happy in the turn-of-the-century tinsel have faded away. Everything works well enough, and everybody's got a drawful.

The creative maker, it's true, has never had it so good, at least not since the glut of post-war surplus components and contraptions sold by the hundredweight. Persuade St Nick to pop over to China and you can find the bits to build anything for next to nothing. Test gear that cost as much as a car in 1980 now comes in at less than a spare tire. Or you can get a drone that's basically the Eye of Sauron, and hook it up to an AI that ... well, let's not worry about that. It is Christmas, after all. For the leading-edge neophile, there's always something. The time you could buy a new radio for your Aunt Deidre has gone.

The technology of electronics has created and castrated entire consumer industries many times over, most dramatically in our own lifetimes – something that's true no matter what age you are. That shows up most clearly at Christmas, when we're lucky enough to select the things we want, not that we need. As you take the detritus of devices and desires to the recycling bank, think what your personal life journey through geeky gifts says about your changing relationship with technology – and what Santa might be bringing 20 years from now. Merry Christmas. ®

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