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Why we need to remember life before the Internet

by Alex in | | |

The Internet in 2007.

January: Julien Assange becomes one of the public faces of the recently-launched Wikileaks.

May: Google launches Street View, which provides street-level imagery for selected cities in Google Maps, precipitating a backlash and discussion about its privacy implications.

June: The first iPhone is released.

“What did kids do before there were iPads?” our kids asked us last week. This question was astonishing not just as an indicator of how central the iPad has become to our family life, but of how incredibly short our kids’ memories are.

“What do you mean, ‘kids’?” I replied. “What did you guys do before the iPad?”

With a little prodding, our kids were able to recall the distant memory of their lives 13 months ago, as if forcing themselves to relive an early childhood trauma around which their subconscious had erected a barely penetrable wall. I pushed them still further.

“You know, you’re not just older than the iPad…you’re both older than the iPhone!”

At this point, their minds were well and truly blown. Our younger child may predate the 2007 arrival of the iPhone by nearly a year, but a world without perpetually available, pocket-size entertainment is beyond his grasp. Even his big sister can’t remember those dark days when she had to amuse herself in restaurants with something as primitive as crayons and the back of a menu.

Subway-style map shows popular tech companies and websites

Snipped from a map of the 2007 Internet as a subway system, by Information Architects Japan. (Click to view full map.)

Their relationship to the chronology of the iPhone is a miniaturized version of the process I’ve been through in the past month. OK, so I’m technically older than CNN, email and the graphical user interface, but I can barely remember a world without them. So many of the anniversary dates I’ve discovered in my retrospective have startled me with their newness, or conversely, their distance: did we really get our first computer only a year after Canada got properly online? Was there really a moment when we could have avoided the horrors of the animated gif? Have people really been pontificating about the rules of netiquette for 28 years?

My incredulity stems from the difficulty of recollecting what life was really like before I spent half of it online. The pre-Internet world now feels as distant as a foreign planet or ancient civilization.

Just as I want my kids to comprehend the possibility of Apple-free amusement, I strive to hold onto a few small elements of continuity with my pre-tech life. I juggle time zones so that I can enjoy extended phone calls with a handful of my dearest long-distance friends, even though emails and Twitter would make it easier to keep in touch. I still read novels on actual paper. I do a little bit of sewing and a little bit of cooking so that I retain a few practical skills that don’t involve a keyboard or an Internet connection.

These are old-fashioned activities that I love, but holding onto them increasingly feels like a virtue as well as a pleasure. Bombarded with dire warnings about how the Internet is disrupting our families, our relationships and our capacity for self-entertainment, there is increasingly a sense of nobility in cultivating a few offline interests. In part, the capacity to sever from the hive mind feels like a sign of spiritual or emotional depth, the way a passion for opera or Greek poetry used to signal one’s cultural sophistication.  But the preservation of an offline self can also feel like a form of noblesse oblige, a heritage that we are safeguarding for today’s kids, and tomorrow’s.

At (nearly) age 40, I’m part of the last generation — in the developed world, anyhow — that will have a significant bank of pre-Internet memories. If my 30-year-old friends even remember when their family got its first computer, it’s because they remember the thrill of playing Where in the world is Carmen Sandiego? When their kids inquire (with a  mix of curiosity and revulsion) about life in the pre-iPhone, pre-Playstation, pre-Google world, they will at best regale them with tales of pixellated video games and ill-programmed Barbies.

When I told my kids about life before iPad I told them about a time when I played hide-and-seek in the local park. I told them about building Barbie houses out of shoe boxes. I told them about reading book after book, just for fun.

And I told them about being frequently, painfully bored. I was an only child in a world of 7 TV channels and no Internet, and it wasn’t especially fun. If I’m a fast reader and a decent writer it may be thanks to all the times I escaped into a novel, but if I’m a compulsive multi-tasker it may be that I’m making up for all those times when there was nothing to do at all. I don’t romanticize the kind of childhood that predated Tivo and videogames, but I recognize that my memories of a pre-tech world include a few experiences worth saving.

We are in the early stages of a massive cultural negotiation over how technology will be assimilated into our  work, our personal lives, our identities and even our bodies. As we dive into that negotiation process, we will need to draw upon values, practices and mindsets that pre-date the Internet so that we can bring the best of the old into our life with the new. Choosing at least three areas of your life that you refuse to digitize can be your contribution to this warehouse of offline experience, your own personal archival selection from The Land Before Internet Time.

First posted on May 1,2011
  • Jungo

    I don’t think that the diagram was made to look like the NY City subway system. It’s actually the Tokyo subway route map.

  • http://www.alexandrasamuel.com Alexandra Samuel

    D’oh! Good point. I found it on a site that described it an NYC map but you’re right, it looks nothing like it. Clearly I am overdue for a trip to NY (or Tokyo!)

    Thanks so much for the correction.

  • http://twitter.com/zinglewaga Zinglewaga Dad

    You had 7 TV channels?? We had 3 and they were black & white (and I’m only 43, but from UK).

    I frequently find myself extolling to my kids the virtues of life pre-tech/internet, as I try a wrest them from their iPod touches/laptop/”my” iPad. Like many my age, I do have this rosy hued memory of my own childhood, playing from early morning to dusk with my buddies, wandering around our village, masters of our own destiny.

    However, you’re right. I don’t remember it like that now, but I probably was bored out of my skull a lot of the time. It’s rare that I hear my own kids talk about being bored or having nothing to do, because when they don’t have anything better to do, then they can usually be found playing games on one of the many devices around our house.

    Still, balance in all things. I would like our 9 and 12 yr olds to get out more and experience the joy that is freedom from parental control. I even “spring-cleaned” the garage yesterday so that they can get their bikes out without having to ask mom or dad to carry it over all the junk.

    Anyway, like your ideas about keeping some things undigitized. Maybe we’ll all pledge homage to 3 offline activities over dinner tonight.

  • Imaginaryyou

    I’m 38 and totally amused at how baffled and put-off most of my friends and family are that I don’t pick up the phone every time one of them calls. They have all forgotten what it is to be free and believe that because technology has made it possible to stay in constant connection with everyone that somehow that equates to it being our responsibility or obligation to be available to everyone all the time!  I refuse to fall into this.

  • http://twitter.com/Gorette66 Jocelyn Crosland

    I remember life without the Internet. It seemed larger, more mysterious, and full of hope. Unlike most people my age (22), I miss having to wait for a letter to arrive, or wondering when my then-college attending bro would call. 

  • http://silverfang77.tumblr.com/ Silver Fang

    I remember riding my bicycle outside. Does that count?

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