When we think about the world's greatest "Robots in Disguise," what really comes to mind? Cars and jets that turn into giant feuding mechs? Awesome funky 80's cassette players and tapes that turn into condors and panthers? Perhaps what is most evocative is the fun of solving the puzzle of converting a toy from one mode into another...
Transformers were spectacular toys marketed to little boys in the 1980's (although I knew a handful of girls brave enough to "roll out" with the Autobots) that had elements of role play combined with the complexity of puzzle solving.
Choosing between the Autobots (who in the first batch of toys were mostly cars and trucks) and the evil Decepticons (who were mostly military vehicles in their first wave) was mostly a function of aesthetic choice. For me, I was fascinated by the more random and esoteric vehicle modes from both factions. Things like hovercraft, UFOs, weird alien tanks with drill bits, robotic dinosaurs and insects, and other science-fiction and fantasy influenced characters appealed to my wild imagination and love of the less mundane possibilities of the intergalactic war those bits of plastic portrayed.
Perhaps what is most fascinating about those toys when compared to the other 80's properties that competed for our dollars and attention, is the fact that the Transformers represented a constant stream of adaptations. When the line began, there were merely cars and trucks and tanks that turned into robots. Shortly after the excitement for this innovation died down, Hasbro produced a line of construction vehicles who could turn into individual robots, or combine into one giant mega robot (known as a Gestalt or Combiner.) After a string of interesting combiners that ranged from teams of stunt cars, to jets, all the way to mythological sea creatures and dragons, the engineers at Hasbro were looking to shake up the toy line again. In rapid succession we were introduced to the Targetmasters (robots whose weapons could turn into smaller robots,) the Headmasters (Transformers whose heads could turn into smaller robots,) and Powermasters (Transformers who could not be changed from one mode to another until a smaller robot was transformed into a tiny "engine" and plugged into their bodies.) Elsewhere, giant city transformers that could become battle stations or scorpions and dwarved even the combining robots from earlier in the line emerged. After the novelty of these innovations began to ebb, we were introduced to Pretenders, small transformers that were inside a "shell" that become its own action figure and fight along side them. Lastly, we were sold the Action-Masters, non-transforming robots packed with vehicles and weapons that could change modes from one object to another. By the time Hasbro was out of ideas, their core demographic was either out of money or had grown too old to be interested in the technological improvements of Cybertronian warfare. The era of the Transformers had passed from boy's toys, but not without leaving a permanent mark on our collective consciousness.
Perhaps what is most fascinating about those toys when compared to the other 80's properties that competed for our dollars and attention, is the fact that the Transformers represented a constant stream of adaptations.
As an adult who still collects and follows Transformers, I may be a bit of an oddity. However, in my professional life, I often find myself thinking of their adventures as a metaphor for the constant change in the world of technology. When I built my first website in 1996, we were just beginning to structure basic components like tables and animated GIFs. Now, we're using complicated systems that rely on secure databases to do things like determine the location of our user, serve them unique content, and allow them to respond to that content in realtime.
During the early 2000's, I had the opportunity to work at two separate companies where the lead developer had a difficult time adapting to the changes in technology. One lead developer continued to code site layouts in tables (or with iframes) well past 2010, and another lead developer refused to even consider the possibility that there might be another viable CMS than Wordpress. The later of the two had a very storied career in coding, had been present for many of the innovations of the web, but I could sense a kind of panic whenever I would mention some of the innovations in Drupal that were emerging like multi-language support, and multisite installations. He would stutter and stammer, sweat visibly beading on his brow, and rant incoherently that there were security flaws in Drupal. To be sure, there are security concerns with every CMS, but I began to realize that his resistance to technology that could solve some of our clients needs came not from fear of the sites being hacked, but rather fear of having to learn a new technology.
Since then I've had to immerse myself not only in a number of new CMS systems and technologies (Drupal has gone from 5 to 8 in a few short years) but I've also had to learn about flexible frameworks for responsive mobile design, IOs and Android app development, and even learned new ways to produce web animations when Adobe Flash was killed by the iPhone. The ever shifting landscape of tech business is no place for those who wish to plant their flag and claim some permanent shore in some form of digital manifest destiny. When we've conquered every "continent" on the digital map, we need merely to turn our eyes towards the heavens to see new frontiers ripe for discovery and adventure, viewing the evolution of code and technology as an opportunity to be seized rather than an obstacle to be avoided.
As I read articles and attend conferences where my peers present the newest innovations in mobile and web technology, I often think of the Combiners and Headmasters and Pretenders that fought so hard for my allowance dollars in the 1980's. My ability to follow the changing stories as a child kept me enthralled with the toys marketed to me by Hasbro's Transformer comics and cartoons. My ability to adapt and learn new technology and methods has kept me involved in the changing world of web development since I built my first site for pay in 2001.
It would appear that adaptation is a skill not only possessed by the Autobots and Decepticons of my childhood, but practiced by myself as an adult in my chosen profession.