I was born in the 1970s before the internet, cell phones, and GPS. Believe it or not, only a few decades ago, we didn’t carry tiny computers around in our pockets.
You young ones are thinking I’m old now, but imagine how archaic “tiny computers in our pockets” will sound in a few decades when you have one implanted in your brainpan. Eventually, you will be old too. Someday, there will be a “back in my day,” just you wait.
This is a list of things we had to do before we had tiny computers in our pockets. I wrote it so that you can appreciate how lucky you are.
1. Use maps and ask for directions.
This one actually baffles me and I lived through it. How did we get anywhere without GPS? The answer is, not very easily. We used folded paper maps like a 15th century Portuguese explorer. We got lost a lot. We had to stop at gas stations and ask for directions or use pay phones. “I’m lost. I see a tree and a house…”
“Come on over,” usually involved writing convoluted directions with landmarks on the back of a junk mail envelope. For example, here’s the back of a flyer for a friend’s party. The front had all the usual flyer type stuff, but the back was made up pretty much exclusively of directions:
And speaking of flyers, we made them. There was no such thing as Evite or a Facebook event. When you were having a party, you had to make physical invitations on paper, which you photocopied and handed out to people in person. I kind of miss this one since a lot of these flyers were very creative:
3. Wait at home for phone calls.
Before pagers and cell phones, most people had one phone number and that phone number was for every member of your household from your mom and dad to your bratty little sister. If you were waiting for a boy to call you, there was a very good chance that someone else in your family would be on the phone, because somehow, they always were. When someone was on the phone, another person trying to reach you got a busy signal. No call waiting, no voicemail, just a busy signal. Denied.
In the early to mid 70s, if you weren’t home, it would just ring and ring. By the 80s and into the 90s, we had answering machines. These were machines with tapes in them that a caller could record a message onto, but they were hardly foolproof.
Sometimes, if you really wanted to talk to someone, you set a time. Call me between 6 and 8 on Saturday. I can’t tell you how many hours I spent sitting at home waiting for that cute boy to call.
4. Use libraries for homework.
When I was in school, the internet didn’t exist. That meant that, when it came to writing school papers, we had to do research the old-fashioned way, i.e., in the library with the Dewey Decimal System, invented by this man:
We’d find the appropriate book using Mr. Dewey’s organization system and either write down notes or photocopy pages from the book. Until the late 80s when the word processor appeared, papers were either written out by hand or typed on an old-timey typewriter. That’s how you do before the internet.
5. Have pointless arguments.
The Guinness Book Of World Records was created to stop pointless arguments. Who holds the record for the longest handstand? Look it up.
Many, many pointless arguments were had before the days of the internet where answers are just seconds away.
“Who played Han Solo in Star Wars?”
“It was Harrison Ford.”
“No, it was Sean Connery.”
“No, you’re wrong. Sean Connery was James Bond. Harrison Ford played Han Solo.”
“No, you’re wrong. Harrison Ford was Indiana Jones, not Han Solo…”
And so it went. Without a third party who knew the answer, sometimes these stupid arguments would escalate or just never get answered.
What is the name of that song? I have no idea.
6. Make mixed tapes.
When cassettes tapes first came out, they were life altering. Before cassettes, you couldn’t record your own mixes unless you had an expensive reel to reel equipment. You could buy albums prerecorded onto cassette tapes, but you could also buy blank tapes so you could record anything you’d like. You could rerecord over cassette tapes as many times as you wanted. You could even record songs off of the radio, which was an easy way to get free music.
Cassette tapes allowed for the very first playlists, or as we called them, mixed tapes. A mixed tape was a collection of songs in any order on side A and side B. It’s sort of like making a playlist, but because cassette tapes were usually 90 minutes (though they did have 60 and 120 minute tapes too), you had a limit as to what you could fit on one.
A mixed tape required careful consideration, because they usually involved sending a message to the recipient of the tape. They were commonly used as romantic overtures. If a boy liked a girl, he didn’t swipe right; he made a mixed tape that would subtly get the message across. Making a mixed tape is a lost art.
The downside of cassette tapes is that sometimes they would get stuck in a cassette deck or unwind. The best way to fix it was to roll it back up with a pencil.
7. Buy things.
There was a time when, if you wanted to hear an album and your friend wouldn’t make you a tape of it, you’d have to go out and buy it like a chump. If you wanted to read a comic book and your friend wouldn’t lend you their copy, you bought it. If you wanted to see a movie, you bought a ticket or waited for it to come out on video and rented it.
There was no digital super repository of all of humankind to download things from. A torrent was just a stream of water during heavy rainfall.
8. Go to arcades and video stores.
If you missed that movie you wanted to see in the theater, you waited a few months until it came out on video where you could rent it from a video store.
You would walk into a physical space, choose a movie, rent a video copy of it that you would put in something called a video cassette recorder (VCR), watch it, rewind it and return it to the store.
If you wanted to play a new video game, you went to your local arcade armed with pockets full of quarters. You would stand at a big boxy thing squeezed in next to a lot of other big boxy things, put in quarters and play the games in public. And then you’d go home poorer.
9. Change our phone numbers whenever we moved.
This one is a comparatively recent change. I’ve had the same phone number for at least fifteen years now. A friend of mine is still using his California number even though he lives in another time zone. That would have been impossible long ago.
Before that changed in the early 2000s, whenever you moved and even when you switched cell phone providers, you had to get a new phone number. This was rather annoying, especially, if you, like me, moved a lot. People never knew how to get in touch with me and this was before the days of social media.
I lost touch with a friend, because he moved and left an answering machine message with his new information, which my answering machine promptly garbled (I told you they weren’t foolproof). Then, as fate would have it, I moved a couple of weeks later and we totally lost contact. I never heard from him again. I’ve halfheartedly been looking for him for twenty years. Things don’t always work out like the movies.
10. Wait for photos to be processed.
There was a time, again, not too terribly long ago, probably in your lifetime–when pictures were taken with film. Pictures on film had to be developed by people with a series of chemicals. Usually, unless you were a professional photographer, this meant taking them to the Fotomat or the drug store where some seventeen year old dumped chemicals on them and looked through all of your personal memories before you did.
There were no do overs. You photographed what you photographed. If you didn’t like the picture and wanted to redo it, too bad. The moment was gone. It’s printed now. Your eyes were closed, your hair is a mess, you have red-eye… oh well. And all of this took at least a day.
11. Wait for our favorite television shows to come on.
Prime time was king. All the TV shows in TV land vied for a coveted prime time slot, which was weeknights from 8 to 10 pm when most people had finished dinner and were plunking themselves on the couch for a night of TV viewing.
We were so excited when the VCR came out because it meant that we could record things and watch them later! How cool is that? We can go out and do something while our VCR is busy recording Miami Vice! That’s so radical.
My family got cable when it first came out and HBO, Showtime, and Cinemax only showed second run movies. They didn’t make anything of their own. MTV actually showed music on television.
12. Write down our contact information.
If you met someone you wanted to talk to more later, instead of just plugging their number into your smart phone or looking them up on social media, you exchanged phone numbers.
For whatever reason, I saved all the ones I was ever given. I have a lot of them. I have hundreds of little bits of paper and cocktail napkins and matchbooks and business cards with handwritten phone numbers on them. Most of the names I don’t even remember or have any context for at all.
I have some that belong to the same person, because everyone kept having to change phone numbers every time they moved. If you lost that bit of paper, you were out of luck. You might never meet that person again since you had no other way to contact them.
Now, if you’ll excuse my old self, I need to go slather Ben Gay all over my wrinkly bones before The Wheel Of Fortune comes on.