Jan 5, 2024 - Technology

Get ready to hear more about "pre-internet" times

Before GPS and cellphones, the glove compartment of your car would be crammed with paper maps and atlases — and people used to talk on phones, some of them with rotary dialers. Photo at left: Karl-Josef Hildenbrand/picture alliance via Getty Images; at right, William Gottlieb/Corbis via Getty Images

Expect 2024 to feature more talk about "pre-internet" life — a subject of intense curiosity to the growing cohort of people who never experienced it.

Why it matters: There's been a pronounced generational tipping point: Boomers, Gen Xers and elder millennials are now the last people who remember what it was like to use a pay phone, a paper map, a typewriter, etc. — and they're being rapidly outnumbered by younger adults who don't.

Driving the news: There's mounting fascination among the "youngs" in how people socialized, found where they were going, and got things done before the mid-1990s, when the internet, email and mobile phones started becoming common.

  • They're turning to vintage TV shows like "Friends" and "Seinfeld" to catch a glimpse, or asking questions on Quora and Reddit about what life was like.
  • A growing number of articles and personal essays meditate on what it was like to live without being reachable at all times or carrying all the world's accumulated knowledge in your pocket.
  • Social scientists use terms like "digital immigrants" and (cheekily) "the last of the innocents" to describe people who came of age in the era of phone books, VCRs, answering machines and paper AAA TripTik maps.
  • Dinner table conversations have Gen Zers asking their elders: How did you meet up with people? How did you find what you wanted to buy?
A pair of hands and an open Yellow Pages phone directory.
An advertising jingle for the Yellow Pages phone directory went, "Let your fingers do the walking." Before Yelp, when you wanted to find a business, you looked here for a listing (minus customer reviews) of a plumber, pizzeria, veterinarian, etc. Photo: William Gottlieb/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images

Zoom in: Movies that took place in "pre-internet" times are starting to have an antique or period feel to them — like the 2023 Golden Globe-nominated "Air," set in 1984.

  • Ben Affleck's character, in his quest to sign Michael Jordan as a spokesman for Nike, fusses over a paper map while trying to drive to the Jordan family home, and races to a pay phone in front of a 7-Eleven to call his office for critical information.

Reality check: Even people who did grow up pre-internet find it increasingly hard to recall how things worked. (I sheepishly raise my hand.)

  • By today's standards, things were more boring and inconvenient — you couldn't play Candy Crush while standing in line, couldn't find the answer to whatever question popped into your head, and couldn't reach anyone, anytime.
  • Relics of this era seem increasingly vintage, like the "Message Tree" at the 1969 Woodstock Festival, where people pinned handwritten notes for friends they were trying to locate.
  • An article in The Atlantic encapsulates these sentiments: "What did people do before smartphones?" the headline asks, adding, "No one can remember."
People stare at a bulletin board full of messages at the Woodstock Festival in 1969.
At the 1969 Woodstock Festival, people communicated by writing messages on paper plates and sticking them on message boards. Photo: Ralph Ackerman/Getty Images

"Many who lived through these 'Dark Ages' will tell you how life seemed less busy, less stressful and more enjoyable," Christopher McFadden writes on the news site Interesting Engineering.

  • People got together in person more often since they couldn't text or Zoom — and paid more attention to each other.
  • Boredom begat creativity and useful ideas. After all, it's easier to let your mind wander productively when you're not addictively scrolling TikToks.
  • Pop culture was a lot less fragmented since everybody had to watch TV shows at the hour they aired (at least, before VCRs).
    • As the late, great David Carr — former media columnist for the New York Times — put it in 2007, "Rising above the clutter was a lot easier when we were all staring into the same campfire."

The other side: The safety advantages to today's world are infinite. Instant phone access to your children and other family members in case of emergency is just one example.

  • The luxury of being able to look up anything that's on your mind, any restaurant menu, anything at all, anytime... is amazing.
  • The ability to take infinite photographs and store them safely online is a great joy — and sure beats dropping off rolls of film for a week at a photo shop (or drugstore) and hoping the pictures don't come back blurry.
  • Emails and texts are a lot easier to compose than the handwritten letters we used to dutifully send to friends and family. (OTOH: Thank-you notes have become a lost art.)

How it used to work: Before the internet, you didn't keep in touch with everyone from your past — much less wish them a happy birthday, get periodic doses of their political views, or stumble on photos of their gender reveal parties (which didn't exist).

  • Before Facebook, your former co-workers, past classmates and roommate's-cousin-you-met-at-a-party-once were people you might never see again.
  • "You couldn't find out, buy, watch or listen to anything you wanted immediately," as one Redditor explained. "If you wanted to access your money, you had to go to a bank during banking hours. If you wanted to listen to a song, you had to hear it by chance on the radio or go and buy a physical copy at the store."
  • People read books and newspapers (sniff!); listened to records, cassette tapes and CDs; watched TV and played card games and stuff.

Where it stands: Our collective sense that we spend too much time online has led to an inchoate nostalgia for pre-internet times — when sounding off about politics meant writing a sharply worded letter-t0-the-editor and shoving it indignantly in the mailbox.

  • According to a Harris Poll published by Fast Company, "most Americans would prefer to live in a simpler era before everyone was obsessed with screens and social media."
  • That sentiment is strongest among Gen Xers and older millennials, the poll found.

Yes, but: Those same poll respondents might be in for a rude shock if they actually had to get through their day without a smartphone.

Flashback: One of my vivid memories of journalism in the late 1980s was covering a high-profile court case and watching the Associated Press reporter guard the phone booth next to the courtroom, so she could be the first to report the verdict.

  • As a cub reporter in the Boston suburbs, I used to go to local libraries to look up people's numbers in telephone books because that was easier than making lots of calls to directory assistance.
  • Pay phones were a hassle and often didn't work. Here's a story I wrote in 1994 about the perennial disrepair of public phones in Harlem.
A pair of graffiti-covered pay phones in New York City, 2015.
Pay phones in New York City generally looked like this — and often swallowed your dime (or quarter). This photo is from 2015, seven years before the city's last pay phones were removed. Photo: Andriy Prokopenko for Getty Images

The bottom line: The digerati seem to be coalescing around the term "pre-internet" to describe the era, which refers to all of human history up until 1994 or 1995.

  • This distinguishes it from the "before times" — a phrase derived from a 1966 "Star Trek" episode — that has come to mean the period prior to the COVID-19 pandemic.
  • Sign of the times: a T-shirt being sold on Amazon says, "I miss my pre-internet brain."
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