There’s a story my friends and I like to tell about when we were in college. We didn’t have Facebook. We didn’t have digital cameras. We didn’t have cell phones. If you wanted to hang out with someone, you made plans and kept them. And if you wanted to find them…..you walked around.
I really appreciate this thoughtful essay today.
The high school where I work has FINALLY adopted a cell-phone policy. It's pretty simple--kids just have to put their phones in pockets. It has been amazing to see 1) how readily kids are accepting this--they, too, want a break from the constant pressure from their phones, but the devices are simply too powerful to control on their own; 2) how quickly the classroom culture has changed. For the first time in years, I've had to deal with classes being too talkative! Kids are complaining less about having to work in groups; I see them doodling and writing in notebooks during class; they're even taking longer to do their work since they're not just rushing through it so they can go back to their phones.
I really do think that some day we'll look back at the first 15 years of smartphone usage as equivalent to when doctors condoned cigarettes. Obviously, smartphone technology can be an incredibly useful tool, but the idea that everything in life is enhanced by it, or that they *should* be on us at all times (or even that we *should* be reachable at all times) just hasn't borne out.
About a year ago, after a 10-year hiatus, I re-subscribed to the print version of The Atlantic Monthly. I had read it religiously, cover to cover, every month for much of my 20s and early 30s and it gave me a really nuanced view of the world and of politics, but it also exposed me to so much that I never would have chosen for myself - art, literature, music reviews, extremely niche dives into topics that were never part of my orbit.
I canceled my subscription when I started reading *exactly the thing I wanted to read* on Twitter (RIP) or other news sites and was able to perfectly cultivate my experience with being informed about the world. In a way that exactly aligned with my worldview, from people who reinforced my own biases and beliefs. And I lost SO much during that time. I lost my patience, I lost my ability to think critically, I lost my tolerance for anything that wasn't *the thing I wanted*.
With the death of Twitter (among many other things), resubscribing to a physical magazine and reading it cover to cover every month has changed my brain for the better in ways I didn't really think I had missed. Just being exposed to articles about ideas I had forgotten were important (or not) and immersing myself in them briefly has made me feel a lot calmer about my consumption of the news and media, and it makes me wonder what other areas of my life I can extend this simplicity and peace to.
My husband and I (68 and 65, respectively) often discuss this with our daughters (34 and 30): Has the Internet enhanced or degraded our lives? I grew up with serendipity and mystery, or so it seems now. What did it mean that “Bell Bottom Blues” was the first song I heard on the radio the morning after a date? Or running into that guy from film class at a screening of “400 Blows”--a guy I knew nothing about because there was no social media, and a film I had to wait for the film society to screen--an event. I went to the library to do research, to find out anything, really, and I waited for Elvis Costello’s new album, and put on my fat headphones for the ritual First Listen once I’d made my purchase at the record store--a wondrous place. Yeah...I sound like the old coot I am. The Internet made it possible for me to work from home decades before most people, so I was more available to our kids. The Internet made it possible for my husband to finish his PhD remotely. Etc., etc. But if it disappeared tomorrow, I wouldn’t be devastated. I’m glad I grew up during that era.
I think this is largely why people are such enthusiastic supporters of Trader Joe's, Aldi, or Costco-they eliminate the choice overwhelm. I often think about how nice it is to have three choices of mustard versus 33 choices, and even if it's not perfect, it's FINE.
This really resonates with me and is something I've also considered. I have an intense amount of nostalgia for my undergrad years (2005 - 2009, so we had a little more tech but not too much), and this piece has helped bring that nostalgia into focus. My friend group and I spent so. many. nights. doing what we called "Lounging" (capital L) our freshman year. Each floor in our dorm had a lounge, and we would gather most nights to watch the Daily Show on the tiny wall-mounted TV and just fuck around. We were so very silly and uninhibited in some ways, and thinking about it now, I realize that we were just very, very *present.* A few of us had cell phones, but they were mostly for calling home, and we didn't really text one another. Time together was intentional but also wonderfully free-form.
Interestingly, that same friend group set up twice-weekly virtual video calls when the pandemic began and they are STILL GOING, three-plus years later. People filter in and out; sometimes we cancel; but generally, it's remarkably parallel to our Lounging of 15-plus years ago. We are silly and uninhibited and we shoot the shit and fuck around and have fun. We've reconnected in ways that I didn't really expect, which is kind of poignant and beautiful. The calls have even led to yearly reunion gatherings that are always a complete blast and so nourishing.
Whew, now I'm in my nostalgia headspace...!
Oh, the joy of sitting by the radio with a cassette tape in the deck, waiting for a song you wanted to capture, and hitting record as soon as you recognized the first few bars!
I totally understand the point you are making and I grew up in a similar time. But I don’t have the same nostalgia for it. It was fine. But I was an undiagnosed autistic closeted queer kid doing my best to people please my way through the world. If I had an internet full of information autistic self-advocates and queer youth my life wouldn’t have the same trauma in it. I had anxiety as a teenager and I still have anxiety as an adult with a smartphone. Neither version is better. My choices, or more accurately lack of them, for clothing as a fat kid made me cry repeatedly. As a fat adult, I get to shop online (still a less than ideal experience) and feel that my clothes fit and express my personality, style and even sometimes my (nonbinary) gender!
At risk of oversimplifying, I think fewer choices only serves people when most of the choices they have or imagine remaining are accessible to them. There are so many ways in which I want more choices. But it feels like wanting more choices (or not) is distinct from the expectations of social engagement in a device moderated attention economy. My life was more siloed in many ways as a younger person and that had benefits. But it also had hugely stressful drawbacks. And I couldn’t control those things. Right now, we have the illusion of control because we can theoretically make certain decisions but we are not empowered to do so.
I'm a tail-end Boomer with a young teenager and I want to weep when I see how social media/cell phones affect my kid. It's like someone took Seventeen magazine and Cosmopolitan and cranked them up to 11 -- times infinity. I have lots of conversations with my kid about how to deconstruct what she's seeing, I use car time to play stealthily subversive podcasts -- we listened to Jessica DeFino on skin care as the new diet culture, for example. But it's a constant struggle.
Yes to all you say here -- the ennui results from infinite choice; the joy that can arise from frequent encounters with the unexpected. My 15-year-old daughter has recently started listening to the radio, and it makes me so happy to see her experiencing the rush of having that song she really wants to hear come up after 30 minutes of songs she doesn't care about or even like. This is something that people her age rarely get these days -- the feeling of suddenly having something completely out of your control align with your desires, and not because you've been feeding data to an algorithm (which always seems to get it not quite right, except when it gets it creepily exact). To me, the particular charge of this that radio provides is one of the best there is. Finally, thank you for reminding me of the singular excitement of rushing to get my film to the 24-hour photo processing place before the deadline to get my photos the next day!
You've captured so perfectly the cold, lonely exhaustion of knowing what's happening everywhere, all the time yet feeling utterly disconnected. I'm 65, but pretty extremely online, and I'm an introvert who's lived alone a long time. It's never felt desolate in the way it does now.
You’ve beautifully captured what I miss about “before”. I was born in 1975, so had a total analog childhood and only got email partway through college. We still have cable (and pay the ridiculous monthly cost) because i find all of the content on the streaming services completely overwhelming. It’s too much. I’ll go to them to watch something specific but other than that, I’d rather just flip through the channels. I’ve also switched back to a “dumb” watch lately. I am done with being always available and at the mercy of my phone. I usually don’t respond to texts right away anyway. The only area in my life I have a more-is-more attitude is with tattoos. 😁
I've talked about this with regards to my kid. I realized that with all the streamers she doesn't have a scarcity of choice for what she wants to watch or play so it can cause decision paralysis or just bouncing around from thing to thinf. Versus when most of us were kids you maybe had a couple VHS tapes and you wore them out and knew the lines by heart. Same for music. It wasn't until I recently bought a vinyl player and let her pick out a few of her own albums to have (Midnights, Spiderverse soundtrack) that she really developed a very strong bond to music. So now with a forced scarcity of choice from the physical media she has been wearing out the grooves and reading liner notes and learning the lyrics in a much more involved way.
I think about this stuff all the time, particularity as a mom of a daughter starting her senior year and a son starting high school last week. That one detail — not recalling a single moment with headphones — contains worlds. I have always known and celebrated that my best adventures happened in the space of “lostness,” relying on encounters with people that led to absurd and memorable outcomes, or even just great conversations. Snippets of life that really, truly in the aggregate feel like they make up “my life.” These random, unplanned encounters with the world fully capture what it feels like to be me. The loss of that gives me immeasurable grief for others; I can only continue to hope that we somehow reach a saturation point and bounce back towards something even more fully human, perhaps as a result of the reckoning with ai. Thank you for this lovely piece.
This post reminded me of a sad story. In the late 90s a large group of my friends and I went the The Lemonwheel. It was a huge Phish music festival that hundreds of thousands of teens and young adults attended all the way at the tippy top of Maine. I didn’t particularly like Phish, but was happy to spend the time with my friends and go on an adventure, we bought the tickets last minute (at Tower Records no less!!). Several car loads of us departed from Boston in the evening to make the 8 hour drive up to Maine. As to be expected, we lost each other along the way, and there were no cell phones to help us reconnect at the festival. When we got to the Lemon Wheel there were huge boards all along shakedown street, (deadhead slang for the main thoroughfare in parking lots where full time followers of bands set up shop selling anything from grilled cheeses to hits of nitrous oxide) with fluttering notes that festival goers left for each other ranging from requests for golden tickets, rides, or detailed instructions for friends on where to meet and at what time. It was like Desperately Seeking Susan but in real life. We managed to find most of our friends but there was one carload of kids we couldn’t track down. We left notes on every board, made signs that we held up high while walking through the crowd, shouted out their names, we did everything we could with the technology of the time to find our friends. When we returned back to Boston after several days of festival delirium we found out that the missing carload of friends had been in a horrible accident on the way up there. The car flipped off the road killing the driver and severely injuring the rest of the passengers. Over the years I’ve often thought about how different that festival would have been for us if we had cell phones and got the news right away. I think about the signs we posted to friends who could never see them. I think about how sometimes not knowing horrible news immediately can be a dark kindness.
You've inspired me to not spend time browsing dahlia varieties in all their glory and instagram marketing and just take what I can find locally and enjoy them.
I am going to have to ruminate on this - it's inspired a bunch of feels. (I think I'm a little older than you - I didn't get anything internet until a year or two after I graduated college, but I recognize a lot of what you describe, which I think is very characteristic of a certain small residential college experience.)
My immediate reaction, though, is to think of clothes. I shop pretty much exclusively online now, and I do miss the luxury of wandering through stores, finding items I didn't know I wanted, and the fun of college friends and I trying on fancy dresses we had nowhere to wear and couldn't afford even if we did. I was a suburban kid so this was in big department stores and mall standards rather than hip urban boutiques or the like, so not "cool," but a lot of fun.
But I couldn't do that now even if I wanted to, as I've sized out of what's available in physical stores, except for Old Navy's failed attempt at inclusivity and maybe a few sad "women's" sections in the aforementioned department stores. Plus-sized fashion obviously still has lots of issues, but the online world has definitely opened up possibilities that didn't previously exist. I recognize this is more about consumption than communication, of course, although in the world of communication, it's enable non-mainstream communities in a way that was much harder before infinite choice (to a fault - at the same that the online infinite choice allows, for instance, marginalized people to form communities outside their physical locations, it enables living in bubbles and fostering hate.)
I definitely agree about the algorithm reflecting you back and yourself, too - my Etsy search results are a really blatant example of this. I've become hyperfixated on "curating" my ear piercings so I've been searching for various kinds of earrings, and my Etsy suggestions are clogged with items I've already looked at or already bought. My political/social online experiences are likewise created by various algorithms in ways that aren't quite as obvious but just as narrowing.