What Life Was Like Before the Internet

Sunday, January 30, 2011
It's kind of freaky to me sometimes to think that today's kids and young people have never known what the world was like before the Internet. The thought occurred to me when I interviewed a couple of college students for an internship in our department. They were both in kindergarten when email was catching on, and they never had to write a report without the help of a browser. With that in mind, I thought it might be fun to list the many ways in which the Internet has changed our lives - for better or worse. I'm kind of omitting the big picture things here and listing the smaller ways of doing certain things before computers took over our lives. For example...

*I wonder how many kids today know what the Dewey Decimal System was? In elementary school we learned all about it, because that was how we had to find books! Each book that a library acquired meant a librarian had to type or fill out a little card and assign the book a Dewey Decimal number, which would then tell visitors which shelf of the library the book was located. These cards were alphabetized (by title or the author's last name, I think) in little drawers. I seem to remember a scene in Ghostbusters where a librarian is spooked by a ghost and all of the Dewey Decimal cards come flying out of their tiny drawers.

*There was no such thing as Wikipedia, so we had to look up subjects in actual hard copy encyclopedias. I happen to think Wikipedia is far superior since the info is updated in real time - the minute a celeb passes away, Wikipedia already has the entry up-to-date. Amazing!

*Inviting people to a party or gathering meant sending invitations and making phone calls. Yes, without email or social media, getting the word out about a party was done by licking some stamps (we didn't get self-adhesive stamps until 10 or 15 years ago...talk about SO much more work involved back then) or letting your fingers do the walking and your mouth do some talking. At least wedding invites are not immune yet to being sent via snail mail. 

*Reviews of products and services were strictly spread by in-person word-of-mouth. Yelp, InsiderPages, and other popular reviewing sites have changed the way we can pre-screen restaurants and other businesses. In a matter of seconds, we can see the opinions of hundreds of customers and what the rating average was. In the past, we found out from our friends, neighbors, family members, coworkers and other acquaintances if The Regal Beagle bar really was up to their standards.

*We had to wait sometimes to get the latest news. Before the Internet, your news sources were limited to TV, radio, and the daily morning paper.

*Shopping had to be done in person. Whether you were looking to buy clothes, groceries, appliances or records, before the Internet you had to physically get your butt down into a store to make a purchase.

*People met and dated in more traditional ways, not just online dating. I'm not knocking online dating; I've done it before and plan on doing it again, but I'm reminded of a 70s article I found once that surveyed single adults on how they get dates. Most of their romantic relationships started through mutual friends, at work, or at a bar. In other words, the only way of meeting other people was by actually meeting other people in person, not on a dating site. And if you wanted to ask someone out? You had to actually pick up the phone and make a call. And growing up, in my neighborhood if we wanted to play with our neighbors' children (many of whom I already knew through school) we'd just ring each other's doorbells or simply show up at their house and hope they'd already be outside fooling around with the bikes or jumping rope.

Well, these are just off the top of my head. So what would you readers list that I've forgotten? Do you think life is better or worse thanks to the Internet, or just...different?


  1. Dewey decimals still exist because there ARE still books and they have to be arranged somehow on the shelves. But the cards are history and no one's happier about that than librarians!

  2. Ah, good point, Kathy. Of course. I've been requesting books through my library's website for a long time now and they often get a copy from other libraries, so it's been a while since I looked up a book via its decimal number.

  3. First, the librarians had to do a minimum of 3 cards for each book: Title, Author, and Subject. The real pain was trying to find a book if you didn't know the author or the title. You had to guess at the subject as determined by the library or the publisher and then, if you were lucky, you found the card in the card catalog. I miss the furniture - huge and solid - with all those little drawers, but I wouldn't actually want to go back to those days. I keep the library catalog open all the time in my browser so, as I hear of books that sound interesting, I can add them to my "for later" list.

    Phone books - you had to have them or you couldn't call anyone you weren't close friends with. Now, of course, they're strictly optional.

    Recipe files, either on index cards in a little box like my mom had, or just shoved into your other cookbooks. No entering the three sad ingredients in your frig in Google or Bing and seeing what kind of recipe they come up with.

    I fear amazon will kill ever so many retail stores like they're killing bookstores. Once upon a time, you had to go to the bookstore if you wanted to browse books or buy any.

    Here's a big one: used or out of print book searches. I recall one particular book that I wanted. It was out of print, so I had to go to the neighborhood used book store and ask them to find it for me. They put an ad in a trade newspaper and got one or two results. I got my book but it took about 6 weeks. Now you go to amazon or alibris and search and if they don't have it immediately, you set up a notification and they'll tell you when it pops up.

    Fabric: I hardly ever go to fabric stores now. I can order on-line and I have access to far, far more including yummy beautiful things like Indian sarees.

    Obviously, the list is endless.

  4. I am constantly telling my kids about life before the net, emails, cell phones and iPods! (mind you I am a big techy freak☺) I think that technology is great but kids these days have little or no social skills or patience. They live in an instant world filled with fast food, IM, texts and google. No one has to really LOOK or WAIT for things anymore!
    I worked in the library system for a few years back when it was hand written cards to sign out AND when the electronic sign out was involved ... looking up book with cards and now it is all on a computer. But sadly kids dont 'hang out' at the library or book stores.
    Somedays i miss the 'old days' (and I am only 38!) but then I look over and see my Kindle and my iPod and smile! My hubby says tho that we (our generation and older ones) have the best of both world as we remember the past days or glory AND we have the advantage of appreciating the new technology! Man is he smart! ☺

  5. Of all the the things mentioned the the one that takes me back the most is the library cards. I remember them well, as well as the cabinets that housed them. As a kid I made my own library cards for the books I owned.

  6. Something I really enjoy is online college classes. I do at least one distant learning class a semester and I find that there's a lot more class participation, probably because everyone gets to think out their thoughts before responding. It always helps me understand the work better and can be more helpful than a straight lecture sometimes.

    I miss those little card catalogs myself. They were fun for someone browsing the library, but I agree that it was probably a nightmare for the employees.

  7. I agree with what Jodi and her husband say. I do miss the old ways but also can't imagine life without the internet now. Sometimes it seems like people esp. younger ones are too dependent on technology. I still like reading my newspaper and my brother thinks I'm strange and should read news on the internet.

  8. You didn't have to go to a store to buy things. The Sears and Roebuck catalog has been around longer than computers.

  9. I agree! I consider myself lucky that even though I'm young, I do remember when we didn't own a computer and we wrote letters and hell, even listened to records! I have a feeling that to a lot of kids today (even my friend, a freshman at NYU who admits she can't remember a time when her family didn't have a computer), that seems very sci-fi. And I do know how the Dewey Decimal System works/worked! :)

  10. Thanx for those remindings of the old time.
    I think the think being all this is TIME. Things go so fast today that you do 100 things in a minute.
    Before, everything took much more time to be done, and you learned to wait, something that most people consider such a trouble now.

  11. I use to be verbally passive about the Internet. Until I lost phone service for a while and could not "log on."

    I never realized how often I do quick checks to get information or order something, or send note, until I could not do it anymore.

    It is a two edged sword of course. I am a fan of old time radio and for most of my life I had a few dozen cassettes representing about twenty shows. With the Internet I can get dozens of episodes of almost any OTR show there was. A definite improvement.

    However, I do miss the card catalog and miss finding a related book in my searches. Like finding a new word when browsing the dictionary.

    Now all you get from the internet is what you are looking for.

  12. My first week of college in the Fall of 1998, I asked a librarian where the card catalog was, and felt like such a dusty old dweeb when she pointed me to the computer cluster.

  13. And since there was no internet, when you did show up at your friend's house they usually WERE messing around on bikes outside. At least the internet has redeemed itself a bit with meetup.com, which takes social networking back out into physical world.

  14. What I remember from before the Internet is going to the cinema. If you wanted to go to the cinema with someone you needed to get the paper on the day (or the day before) to find out what sessions were on.

    You then needed to plan to meet each other at a place and time by calling them at home. There were no mobile phones, so you had to be where you said you were going to be at the appropriate time.

    You then paid with cash you'd withdrawn from a bank branch with your passbook (which is where you found your balance - printed in the little book).

    Maybe it's rose coloured glasses, but I look back at this fondly (and I'm only 35!).


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