Rinker on Collectibles: The First Adopters

I am reaching the point where I forget more than I remember. Memory theorists cite short-term memory—the ability to retain memory in an active, readily-available form for a short period of time—as one of the earliest memory types to weaken among the elderly, apparently a group to which I belong now that I am in my 70s. I make notes. The difficulty is that I keep forgetting where I put them.

Recently, I talked with someone—I cannot remember the occasion or with whom—about the growing desire among individuals to own the newest/latest digital device. The person called the phenomenon the First Adopter concept. A first adopter is an individual who is obsessed by the desire to own something the moment it is released for sale.

The video game Modern Warfare 3 (MW3) was the focus of our conversation. Block-long lines of gamers formed at game shops and Big Box stores in anticipation of the game’s Nov. 8, 2011, midnight release. In its first five days, MW3 grossed more than $775 million in worldwide sales, breaking the record for any book, electronic game or movie. The previous record holder was the electronic game Call of Duty: Black Ops which grossed $650 million in its first five days of sales. Gamers quickly installed the game. XBox Live recorded 3.3 million concurrent users on Nov. 8, the first day of WM3’s release. I was not one of them.

I do not own an Xbox or PlayStation. I have never played an electronic game. Harry Jr, aged 45, plays electronic games. My grandchildren Izaak (13), Sofia (6) and Marcelo (4) play them. An obvious conclusion is that I am growing out of touch with my son’s and grandchildren’s generations. Do not laugh. I am seriously considering this possibility.

I ignored electronic games because I saw no long-term collectability for them. Time proved me wrong. The Strong Museum of Play in Rochester, N.Y., is home to the International Center for the History of Electronic Games. The collection contains more than 8,000 electronic (computer) and video games, along with an extensive paper ephemera collection of electronic and video game memorabilia.

Last week I asked the Davenport University students in my ENGL110 (Advanced Composition) class to discuss how their generation differs from the generations of their parents and grandparents (forget me; I am a member of their great-grandparents generation). The conversation quickly turned to the digital divide. When I asked how many owned a copy of MW3, more than half the class raised their hands. I did not ask them how many had successfully completed the game. I did not want to know, albeit I now have strong suspicions as to why several are behind in their homework assignments.

Readers are aware of my constant search for connections between the outside world and the antiques and collectibles business. When introduced to the first adopter concept, the mental light bulb illuminated in my mind.

You do not see something until you look for it is a trade truism. As I considered the possible connections for the first adopter concept, I came across Henry McCracken’s article, “Reinventing the Wheel. A former Apple exec. builds a better thermostat,” in the Dec. 5, 2011, issue of Time Magazine(Vol. 178, No. 22). The last paragraph reads:

“For a thermostat, Nest is pricey at $249, but the company estimates that utility bill savings can cover the cost in less than two years. … Early adopters have already made it a hit. It’s sold out through the end of 2011, and units are fetching $899 and above on eBay.”

Where is the sense in this? This is a mass-produced item. Since it sold out, it obviously will go back into production. Once units reach store shelves, the price will be $249 or lower. Why would anyone in his right mind—a state not always true of those in the antiques and collectibles field as well—pay $899, more than three times the retail price, just to be one of the first individuals to own an example? This is another example of today’s instant gratification driven society.

When did America reach this point? While my short-term memory may be shaky, my long-term memory is fine. My generation, which grew up between 1948 and 1960, did not have a first-adopter mentality during our youth and early adulthood. In fairness, neither did the members of the Age of Aquarius.

There were some first adopters among us, but they were exceptions. My uncle Bill Rupert always had to own the latest electronic gadget. He bought one of the first commercial wire tape recorders. The device earned him two months in the sun from the youngsters in my extended family. As children of Depression- and World War II-era parents, novelty was amusement but not appreciated. Great thought and consideration was given to each purchases. They had to be practical and last. Patience resulted in reduced prices. Hand-me-downs were as commonplace as new.

There were kid fads. The 1950s TV cowboy craze is an example. However, few children acquired a hoard. Parents bought sparingly. Items ranging from clothing to toys were expected to last for years and not weeks.

When did this change and who was responsible? When determining responsibility, I am a fan of first looking in the mirror. When I do, I see my face. My generation is responsible. We forgot the lessons our parents taught us. We wanted our children to have everything we did not have. Denial was not an option.

We indulged our children, not because they wanted it but because we wanted it for them. The number of toys in the toy box tripled and quadrupled. New replaced hand-me-downs. New soon became synonymous with trendy. You were a good parent if your child had the latest hot outfit or toy of the moment.

The 1983 Cabbage Patch Kids doll craze is often cited as the advent of the “hot toy” era. When supply failed to meet demand, a new breed of individual—known affectionately or contemptuously, depending upon one’s point of view—as the toy scalper arrived on the scene. The secondary market exploded in the month before Christmas, fueled at first by newspaper advertisements and a few years later by eBay.

I am delighted that my children were adults and my grandchildren not yet born during the hot-toy era. As a result, I watched and chronicled but did not participate. The pressure on parents to make certain their child was one of the chosen recipients (a polite term for first adopters) was enormous. The 1996 Tickle Me Elmo craze was the first adopter toy craze at its worst. Fortunately, common sense prevailed soon thereafter. The 1998 Furby craze marked the end of this era.

Collector/limited-edition manufacturers relied on the first adopter mindset to fuel the adult market for a wide range of products. Collector bells, ornaments, plates and whiskey bottles are just a few examples.

The first adopter concept reached disease status during the Beanie Baby craze. First adopter is primarily an adult malady. Speculation was the germ that spread the contamination. The collapse of the secondary Beanie Baby market reintroduced a level of sanity, at least for the present.

In the 2010s, the first adopter concept is short-lived, thanks in part to continual design and technological changes. Obsolescence occurs in weeks and at best months. The next new record-breaking product is often only days or weeks away.

The short attention span of the MTV generations calls into question the future collectability of almost all first adopter objects. Who cares about the first pocket calculator or the portable computer? A few examples will be preserved in private collections and museums. The landfill is the final resting place for the other 99.99 percent.

And so it will be with MW3 and all the record-setting electronic games that follow. In 15 years, the Xbox and PlayStation will be replaced with new technology. They will join Atari, VHS tapes and CDs as quaint remembrances of things used by past generations.

Excuse me while I turn on my late 1930s Philco console model radio, tune in a local radio station (no NPR; the radio only has an AM band), and reminisce about the good old days.


Rinker Enterprises and Harry L. Rinker are on the Internet. Check out Harry’s Web site..

You can listen and participate in Harry’s antiques-and-collectibles radio call-in show “Whatcha Got?” on Sunday mornings between 8 a.m. and 10 a.m. Eastern Time. It streams live on the Genesis Communications Network.

“Sell, Keep Or Toss? How To Downsize A Home, Settle An Estate, And Appraise Personal Property” (House of Collectibles, an imprint of the Random House Information Group), Harry’s latest book, is available at your favorite bookstore and via Harry’s Web site..

Harry L. Rinker welcomes questions from readers about collectibles, those mass-produced items from the 20th century. Selected queries will be answered on this site. Harry cannot provide personal answers. Send your questions to: Rinker on Collectibles, 5955 Mill Pond Court SE, Kentwood, MI 49512. You can e-mail your questions to harrylrinker@aol.com. Only e-mails containing a full name and mailing address will be considered. Please indicate that these are questions for WorthPoint.

Copyright © Rinker Enterprises, Inc. 2011

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