Friday, June 28, 2024

The Textural Experience Of Life Before The Internet. What Was It Like?

Life before the internet: what was it like? I'm often surprised by how difficult it is for me to recall the textural experience.

I don't mean the small things we used to do, like reading paper maps and calling people. Those things I remember pretty well. I have a vivid memory of driving with my then-boyfriend from Buffalo, where his family was, to New Orleans, where I was in graduate school -- a nineteen-hour drive. We went to AAA and got a TripTik -- a series of paper maps showing the entire route. We didn't have credit cards, so his mom made us a hotel reservation for a place about half way through and we paid in cash when we got there.

What I have trouble remembering is more just what it was like just being at home and not having anything to do and not having the internet for on-demand connection and entertainment. Specific memories tell me this was a big part of life, but it's hard for me to recollect what it felt like. Obviously it sometimes felt boring or dull, but of course it didn't feel strange or surprisingly dull, because it was totally normal.

I remember one evening being home alone before dinner in the 90s and feeling totally like "uhh, now what"?  I had probably just finished rereading all the Jane Austen books or something, and didn't have another novel I was into, and I had probably exhausted the interesting news in the newspapers -- which I typically bought two of everyday (one NYT and one local wherever I was). Then I realized I hadn't read that week's New Yorker, which was sitting on a table. And I was like "Oh my god, The New Yorker! Thank god for The New Yorker."

Obviously it's impossible to recreate or recapture the experience, because if we try to life disconnected from the internet now, that is life disconnected from the internet, which bears no relation to life in a world where the internet just never existed.

It's easy to fall into subtraction: to try to picture what it's like by taking what it's like now, and taking things away. No social media, no email, no watching and downloading content because you feel like it. But subtraction just leaves things out, it doesn't tell you what it was like. What was it like to live without the itchy feeling that you could be -- or should be -- checking what is going on on the internet? That things are happening there, even if you're not engaging it?

I'd especially like to know what it was like to feel the mild boredom of having "nothing to do" for a while. What was it like to feel that kind of mild boredom, but to be so accustomed to it that it felt like regular life rather than an aberration?  

I'm especially interested in that because even though I complained quite a bit about boredom in my younger days, I wish I could recapture this feeling, because I feel like my whole motivational set-up was different. My internal bar for an activity being "engaging" or "interesting" seemed so much lower. Reading books that were pretty good but maybe not very stimulating, listening to people talk about slightly dull subjects, writing a letter to a friend -- I did those things all the time, easily, and it was good to do those things.

For me, there is no way to regain that textural experience, because even if I wanted to cut myself off from the internet -- which I don't -- staying away from the internet, and thinking about that choice, and thinking about what is going on there would still use up half my mental energy.

Maybe some of you remember the textural experience of life before the internet better than I do. Maybe some of you are too young to have experienced life before the internet. If you're too young to have experienced it, all I can say is that if you picture being at home now but with your router destroyed and your phone disconnected -- that is really not what it was like. I can't really remember what it was like, just that it wasn't like that.


Don said...

I'm in my 60s, and you're spot on that it wasn't like having the interneet go out. But two letters sum up the pre-internet opportunities to waste time: TV. First basic (5-7 channels), then paradise when cable came along. (The advantage to cable was I no longer had to be my dad's remote control). Then VCRs. So when I see people just flipping through their phones, I think of just mindlessly channel surfing.
I also think about things taking more time and requiring a specific physical location, e.g., arranging to meet friends for dinner. Before phone answering machines, you had to connect directly in person or on the single landline that was in somoeone's home (or office). Or, in order to work on a paper for school, you had to go to the library, go through the card catalog, wait for the book to come, etc. And it took longer to type the paper, because doing footnotes on a typewriter was a real pain.

Amod said...

I'm 48, so I basically got on the internet (via dial-up modem) once I started undergrad. This was an interesting provocation to think about what I did at home in high school and before - especially since I wasn't very social). I wouldn't really say I was bored, because I did a lot of things to entertain myself. TV certainly, but a lot more than TV - including some things that now feel weird and random. I played video games, read newspapers and books... which perhaps most often were manuals for tabletop role-playing games I never actually played. And I listened to pop music on the radio and wrote it down - as in, wrote down the daily-top-5 and weekly-top-40 countdowns, sometimes adding them up to summarize charts of what the biggest things were that year.

Katy said...

I'm turning 40 this year. I have a memory of reading an entire novel (These Happy Golden Years, Laura Ingalls Wilder) one snow day we had off from school, sitting curled up in the window seat in my parent's bedroom. Must have been grade 4 or 5? I only remember taking a break to eat some tomato soup for lunch. Even these days when I am absorbed in a book, the pull of "checking in" on the phone can be strong, as is the pull to do chores. Does anyone do chores when they are bored? Maybe we had cleaner homes =)

Michael Milhim said...

I'm 28, and I still know what life was like pre-internet (in a sense). I think my household got dial-up when I was 5 or 6, the internet got big and fast around the time I started middle school, and I didn't have my first smartphone until undergrad. All this to say that I didn't have that "itchy" feeling until maybe the end of high school when I started using the internet on a daily basis. I spent a lot of time doing homework, watching daytime TV, playing video games, doing extracurriculars, etc. The boredom I experienced pre-daily internet use, in my recollection, was not that different in texture than the boredom I experience now while I'm aimlessly scrolling. The biggest difference is that post-daily internet usage, I more often am in a state of something that doesn't quite reach boredom because I'm too stimulated, but I'm not engaged with the stimulation in a way that usually triggers some mild ennui that has a boredom-like tinge. I still experience boredom without the itchy feeling at least once a month (mostly because I still much prefer laptops and desktops to phones and tablets, and I find myself with just my phone often enough that a subset of those times I just don't even think about my phone at all, leaving me with that pre-internet boredom). Maybe I'm just too cognitivist, but the ways that the internet has changed me has been much more about what I desire, know, and decide upon rather than the fabric of my conscious experience as such. Obviously what one desires, knows, and decides upon is connected with affectivity, but the line between the internet and change in desire, knowledge, and decision is as often not via affective change as it is via affective change

Anonymous said...

I'm 42 and grew up almost completely without internet: My family first got a computer with dial-up around 2001-2002, and I used the internet sparingly in computer labs or on public wifi from 1997 or 1998 through 2013 or so. We're not luddites, just frugal. :) Without internet in our home, I had to prioritize bill payments and homework before any form of entertainment so I could get business taken care of before closing time. Internet use was also an excuse to get coffee and run into college friends as I hauled my heavy laptop around. As for the feeling of boredom, it was rare to complain about not having enough time because time dragged on more without so many things to fill it up. I daydreamed more and invented more creative things to do. I really got to know my own mind and conscience with all the time to think. Conversations were also fun because if someone had a question, we could speculate about answers instead of looking them up right away, and even if our guesses were wrong, imagining them was entertaining. The vast amount of waiting we had to do made everything feel more precious: movies, clothing, and other items weren't available at the click of a button. When I got my first car, I reveled in getting lost and finding out of the way places. One thing I miss tremendously about pre-social media time is privacy. People were not inclined or expected to share their secrets except with the people closest to them. They also had a better sense of when others needed privacy and solitude. It seems to me that there are fewer boundaries now, and so many people demand attention.

Brian Carlson said...

If I can quote a 1994 Green Day song: "I sit around and watch the tube, but nothing's on. I change the channel for an hour or two."

I also used to grab random books off the shelf wherever I happened to be