Friday, August 16, 2013

Life before the Internet: The '80s are now the 'olden days'

A version of this column first appeared in The Dallas Morning News and on

My 5-year-old son, who always seems to be collecting data on my life, wanted to know if I played games on my phone when I was a kid.

“We didn’t have phones with games on them,” I told him. “Our phones only made calls.”

“But … you did have phones?” he said.

I was a little offended by the doubt in Nathan’s voice. Yes, we had phones. By the middle of the ’80s, we could even dial by touch-tone instead of that primitive rotary style. We also had cell phones that were large enough to be used as a weapon when attacked by a Tyrannosaurus.

What we didn’t have, and this is amazing to all my kids, is the Internet as we know it. No online videos. No online shopping. No online updates about someone’s lunch (with photos). We had no idea, or little idea, of what was to come.

Doc, we need to get back to 1985!
What we did have in 1989 was the movie Back to the Future II, which gave us a prediction of life in 2015. Shoes tied themselves, kids whipped around on hoverboards and flying cars filled the sky. It was incredible, and unless we’re at the dawning of a staggering two-year run of innovation, incredibly off the mark. (Maybe the soon-to-be-released iPhone 6 will be able to be used as a tiny hoverboard.)

We won’t have sky freeways in 2015, sadly, but they wouldn’t change our lives more than the information superhighway. It’s hard to even remember life before the Internet. Remember those large gas-station maps that were tough to refold? Leafing through those enormous Yellow Pages books? The card catalogs at the library?

I remember in second or third grade when we learned to use the card catalog at Horizon Elementary, home of the Fightin’ Panthers and the illuminated sign out front with the hole in it from a thrown rock. The card catalog and Dewey Decimal System seemed so complicated at first – subject, title, author, category. But then again, just about everything was complicated to me back then. I was stumped by the Scooby Doo mysteries.

Now, we’re all about the Internet. Life kind of revolves around it. But the change, although drastic, happened very quickly. (Here's a funny video about life before the Internet).

In 1995, only about 1 in 10 U.S. adults used the Internet, according to the Pew Research Center’s Internet and American Life Project. YouTube, Facebook and Twitter were still 10 years or more away. There was no Wikipedia or Google, and was just launching online. Amazon only sold books then, and its original design looked like something my 5-year-old could put together today with some spelling help.

The simple design was needed in 1995 because most people accessed the Internet through painfully slow dial-up modems. You could click on a website, go fix a sandwich, and then return to see the page still loading. Dial-up connections were so frustrating that, probably appropriately, they started with a combination of screeching, wheezing and boinging that sounded like a major malfunction.

And yet it was all so amazing. We had e-mail accounts, visited chat rooms, and could download a song in about 20 minutes. We were thoroughly modern.

Of course, we also felt thoroughly modern in 2005, when iPhones were still two years away and high-definition televisions were too expensive for most people. People felt state of the art in 1985, when Microsoft launched Windows, and in 1975, when pocket calculators gained mass appeal.

The present is always cutting edge. That’s obvious, but it’s also funny as the past shrinks in our rear-view mirrors.

A few weeks ago, my kids were in the car when I flipped to the ’80s station on my satellite radio. The wanted to know what older music sounded like, so I put on the ’40s station, and they laughed as they listened.

The Big Band and swing music was so different than what’s heard on the radio today. I’m sure my kids thought it was played by artistically gifted cavemen. And yes, the music sounds old to me too.

But then I thought about how the ’80s are three decades behind us. Another few years and the early ’80s will be as distant as the ’40s were to me.

How is that possible?

The ’40s were the old days, and I could’ve sworn the ’80s were cutting edge.

We were modern. We didn’t have the Internet, but yes Nathan, we had phones. Decent music, too. Fortunately, my kids aren't old enough yet to connect the Beach Boys' "Kokomo" to the decade of my youth.

Back in the car, we needed a station change.

“Can you put on the normal music now?” I was asked by Cooper, Nathan’s cohort in the back seat. They had heard enough of the ’40s.

“Sure,” I said. “Do you want me to put the ’80s back on?”

“No,” Cooper said. “Normal music.”


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