Gather Round Children, This Is What Life Was Like Before The Internet

September 19, 2019 | No Comments » | Topics: Life Experiences

When I was a little kid, and I asked my parents a non-obvious question about the human body or biology, their answer would be “Ask your uncle Paulo next time we see him. He’s a doctor”. Other questions about various topics would get “Let’s call up grandma and ask her; She’s a teacher”, or “Let’s see if the encyclopedia has anything about this”, or “Ask your teacher if, during recess, you can go ask the librarian at school”.

What movies are playing? Let’s check the newspaper.

How do we get there? Either they sent us directions, or we can open up a map and figure that out, then carry the map with us in case the roads have surprises such as closed exits or in case we make a wrong turn. (Intermediary stage between then and today: Let’s open up that newfangled Mapquest and print out custom directions!)

Say I have an interest in learning photography, or model rocketry, or whatever. I tell my parents and my friends at school (and maybe the person at the store that sells supplies for that hobby). Hopefully someone says “I know someone who does that, and they have a club that meets every-so-often. Talk with them!”, otherwise I’m basically SOL. Nowadays, hobbyists have huge networks that allow them to learn quickly from others, share knowledge, and build things like Linux and Wikipedia.

When I was ~14, I started becoming seriously interested in the aerospace industry. Not just the “airplanes and rockets are cool” that so many kids feel, but the “Why is this company developing an airplane of this size and range? What technologies are implemented into it? How did they come up with these technologies? Why are they being implemented now, rather than in the past or in the future?”. So I started reading aviation magazines (I probably bought a couple to a few per month), and watching the Discovery Channel. Before long, and through all of high school and college, I had a huge pile of aviation magazines and books in my room, and a huge pile of VHS tape recordings of aviation documentaries and shows on the Discovery / History / NatGeo / Learning channels . When I made models, those were my resources for looking up markings, paint schemes, weapons loads, and other details. In the modern world of aviation blogs and Google Image Search and YouTube, the “database” that I used to maintain would be laughable. (And yes, I am now an engineer/researcher at a large airplane manufacturer).

Whatever happened to that guy I hung out with for a while when I was 14? Or that cousin-twice-removed that I met at that family gathering that one time, he seemed super cool and had some neat interests. Or that teacher I really liked? Back when I was young, if you didn’t interact with someone for a while, if they moved away, and don’t have friends/relatives in common, that person would effectively disappear. It would require phone-calls and letters to try to reconnect with them. Even once you did reconnect (if you really wanted to), it was unlikely that you would develop a meaningful long-distance relationship, more than a letter or quick phone call once every couple months. Seeing photos of each other’s projects and trips? Forget about it. Sure, in theory everyone is just six degrees apart, but in practice, harnessing those degrees and having regular interactions with someone who does not live nearby was pretty impractical. Now, I easily stay in touch (and in more meaningful touch) with more people in more places… and, I have corresponded with researchers and hobbyists all over the world when I wanted to ask something they knew about. (Sure, most knowledge can be found online, but not the knowledge in the brains of research scientists and other innovators. That knowledge may or may not be in books in a few years, but I wanted it now, so I just emailed them, and they emailed me back).

Which reminds me: Obviously, letters and even postcards are a huge pain in the butt (which is why they are so meaningful today when we do send them). And as someone who hates talking on the phone, and who dislikes being interrupted in general, I am SO GLAD for email and other delayed-response communication technologies that allow you to craft a response when you are good and ready (barring emergencies and whatnot).

Heck, it used to be possible to build an entire industry based on the fact that information costs some money to replicate and distribute. The music industry, the newspaper and magazine industry, movies and TV shows, books, universities … are all being completely up-ended by the fact that anyone can share any information with anyone else in the world at any time.

It was not that many generations ago that a significant fraction of the Earth’s surface could only be communicated with by physically carrying papers there through long treks by horse or on foot. I still can’t imagine how those large empires operated thousands of years ago, or the early multinational corporations of hundreds of years ago, or the Catholic Church. They ran using only PAPER! That’s like building and flying a moon rocket when the only fuels in existence are wax and whale blubber.

Nowadays, creating and running an organization costs nothing. This makes it much easier to organize criticisms and movements against large companies, large religious organizations, authoritarian governments, etc. This actually makes the world a better place .

If you are not completely blown away by modern information and communication technologies, if you don’t understand that people just a generation ago lived substantially differently when it came to how they thought about information… then, I would guess you’re probably not in your 30s yet. Which is fine. I would recommend you try talk to people just a few years older and ask them about life before the internet. It will be like asking people from the 1600s about life before medicine, the telephone, engines, flying machines, electricity, or philosophical naturalism. Except you don’t need a time machine, or a 100-year-old person. You just need to ask the people you know who were born around 1980 .

You Might Like