Life before the Internet in the 1980s - Baltimore Post-ExaminerBaltimore Post-Examiner

Life before the Internet in the 1980s

Last week I decided to take a trip back to 1980. Not in a literal sense, of course, but I thought it would be telling to give up my phone, my tablet, my personal computer — basically any device that connected me to the Internet — for a week to revisit those unconnected years to see how I fared without them.

I lasted three days.

I would, for the purposes of this experiment, leave my phone at home and use it as if it were a landline, just like all phones from those pre-Internet days. I would use it just for voice calls, and people trying to reach me when I was not home would have to leave voicemails, just as we depended on our answering machines in those benighted days. There were to be no text messages, no email, no instant messages. Also no Facebook or any social media.

Pagers were really the cell phones for those who could afford them in the 1980s.

Pagers were really the cell phones for those who could afford them in the 1980s.

I would use my TV and books for entertainment; no YouTube, no Netflix, nothing that wasn’t available in 1980.

I told my friends and family, my clients for my editing/writing business, anyone who might wonder where I went when I dropped off the grid for a few days.

Marooned in Real-Time

It was awful. For one, people didn’t listen. I continued to receive email and texts, there was nothing on TV I wanted to watch. (I decided to go completely unwired, and watch only the offerings of the broadcast networks, since cable TV was a premium luxury in those days.)

I had to completely forget those habits I had developed over the years. No last minute checking for my phone before I left the house, no checking for email or texts while out or when I returned home, no status updates from friends and family on Facebook or other social media, no cruising the net on my PC during downtime, no online research for this article you are reading.

The first thing I noticed was I felt not liberated, but, rather, disconnected from the world. In fact, I felt as if a limb had been amputated. I kept experiencing a phantom vibration in my pants pocket when I was out, as if my phone was in there and I was receiving a call. I had just read that 60 percent of cellphone users had experienced the same phenomenon, though that was when they had their phones with them. Phone-less, it seemed to have a multiplier effect on this strange sensation. Also, I never knew what time it was.

Do you have the time?

For fashion only - a status symbol.

For fashion only – a status symbol.

Watch manufacturers, makers of timepieces for everyday use, such as Timex, have been driven nearly out of business, as everyone seems to always know the time from their compulsive checking of their phones. The only companies that have benefited have been the makers of status symbol watches, such as Rolex and Movado. Sales of watches costing from several hundreds of dollars upwards have increased, as they have become markers of social status, rather than everyman-means of keeping track of schedule.

The second thing I noticed was just how isolated I was from the mainstream. Seems that everyone in public has their phone in their hands, their eyes on their phones, when waiting for a train, when riding same, when walking city streets.

Who listened?

And despite my warnings to those concerned that I was going off the grid, under the radar, observing radio silence for a limited time, people just didn’t listen. I checked my voicemail upon returning home each day, only to find messages asking, “Where have you been? I’ve been trying to contact you all day.”

This shows how deeply we’ve immersed ourselves in the constant connectedness of the Internet; that even with fair warning that I was going naked into the world, they either chose to ignore my intent or that the habits arising from instant connection with one another were so ingrained that people continued to try to reach me in the manner to which they’ve become accustomed, regardless of foreknowledge that at times I would be unreachable.


Sorry Superman, you are out of luck. No more payphone booths in this era.

What would Superman do?

I tried to stay in contact with business clients when I was out, but when was the last time you saw a public phone? I found a very few, but most seem to have vanished. I could see the ghosts of these one-time ubiquitous items, vacant wall spaces with the tiles ripped out, but working public phones are a rarity. And downright impossible to find when one is looking for one. In fact once I started noticing, I found a few, serendipitously, and never when I needed one.

Trying to reach my kids by calling them was spotty at best. They seem to rely mainly on texting, and disregard voice calls. Nor do they check their voicemail messages. Business clients were almost just as bad. One in fact told me she had been trying to reach me through email and text, had even tried to call me, but hung up when greeted with my voicemail. “Who listens to voicemail these days?” she complained.

The death of print?

Without the net to aggregate my news in the morning on Reddit, I read the daily, newsprint version of the paper. Has anyone noticed just how thin they’ve become in recent years, as the loss of advertising revenue has forced them to focus attention to their online presence?

Sure, the basics were there in print, but even these seemed paltry compared to the nearly blanket coverage provided by nontraditional, non-print news services available on the net. And long-form stories, stretched out over days and through which papers used to compete for Pulitzers, these have gone the way of the dinosaurs.

download (5)I also noticed how thin magazines have become. One thing: the size of the paper or magazine is determined by the number and size of the ads, not, as you could be excused from assuming, by the amount of editorial copy available on any particular day. As Google, Facebook, Reddit and others have been Hoovering up advertising dollars, the major print media have shrunk accordingly.

This paper you’re reading now, in fact, has no print version. Its origins date back to the failing Baltimore Examiner, a victim of the shift to online advertising. It was reborn in its present form by writers and editors of the print version of the Examiner. Its name was changed to “Post-Examiner” to reflect that its stories are now posted online, rather than submitted as copy to see in print.

Don’t throw out those books

So with no web communication to catch up on, I tried to amuse myself with television, limiting myself, as noted previously, to the broadcast networks. I haven’t watched traditional TV in years, and though I know there are very popular shows still viewed in audiences by the millions, the majority seemed to be every permutation of reality shows producers could dream up. I had read about this shift, and it too is a result of competition from the Internet and pay cable shows. These reality shows are indeed popular, but they also are very cheap to produce and, as with print journalism, a reflection of decreasing viewership overall and shrinking advertising revenue.

Hard copy books are dying. Bookstores are disappearing.

Hard copy books are dying. Bookstores are disappearing.

Uninterested by these offerings, I turned to reading a book. Unfortunately, most of the books I’ve been reading are on my phone or tablet, using my Kindle reader app or general Epub or mobi format reader. Fortunately, I have not divested myself of my considerable print library, and read old-fashioned books. Now I’m no e-format snob, who claims to find reading satisfaction only through direct physical contact with paper, cardboard and glue.

My electronic library numbers in the thousands, as I’m a compulsive collector of digital books, carrying a library on my phone alone of more books than I’ll read in a lifetime. I call it my comfort library.

But ebooks are basically formatted text, which takes up very little digital storage space, so on the meager space on my phone I have the complete works of Shakespeare, Mark Twain, classics such as Moby Dick and War and Peace, and hundreds more of Kindle freebies offered and obtained by two services I subscribe to: Bookpub and Booksends, which email everyday with limited-time-only giveaways and heavily discounted Kindle books.

Though a great many of these are nearly unreadable self-published books, there are many gems, and I would recommend these services to avid book readers.

It's a good question.

It’s a good question.

Indispensable Google

Even while reading, my Internet-amped short attention span would spur me to want to explore further some detail of the book I was reading or facts about its author, but without Google, I was doomed to remain ignorant. Google and the guided pathway it offers to the sum of human knowledge is one of the things I missed most.

In fact there are heated arguments among scholars and brain researchers about the service, and whether it is making us smarter or dumber. Those claiming it is making us dumber say that we are off-loading facts formerly stored in our brains, knowing that the information we might need is available at our fingertips.

The other side claims we are actually rewiring our brains by using Google to enhance our knowledge of subjects, either tangential to or directly related to what we are reading. I have read convincing arguments, even research, from both sides, but I have no firm opinion either way.

I just know that I use it daily, for both personal and professional use, could not function nearly as well without it, and am thankful it exists.

Alone in the crowd

But as time passed during my self-imposed exile from the virtual world, I felt increasingly isolated from the human interaction facilitated by the Internet, my clients increasingly frustrated by having limited contact with me, and a growing sense of dislocation and isolation from the social interaction made possible through use of the Internet.

Well, we did have the real MTV in the 1980s.

Well, we did have the real MTV in the 1980s.

Worse, it was beginning to affect my bottom dollar, I suspected, as I was likely missing job offers and work from new clients.

I couldn’t even write this article, as I boycotted my computer, these not being common in the home in 1980, so I gave it up after three days, instead of the week I’d been aiming for.

This experience taught me a couple of things. The social and business worlds have been thoroughly transformed by the Internet, actually ramping up the amount of work we accomplish in a given amount of time, through instant communication and other tools useful and even necessary today. The second is that the Internet has become the glue which binds us to our social networks of family and friends.

Progress or evolution?

It’s not as if life in the days before the net were benighted, dull and limited. It’s that society and business have adopted the new technologies and have fundamentally changed through their use.

Yes, one can function without the Internet and associated technologies, but rejecting these is to become a Luddite and puts one at a distinct disadvantage in business and isolates one from the social sphere.

The life of the average person living in the middle of the 17th Century was described by Thomas Hobbes in Leviathan as “nasty, brutish, and short.” Unfortunately, life in much of the world for billions of people hasn’t changed that much during the interval. But life has changed dramatically for billions more in just a couple of decades, and those changes are not only continuing, they are accelerating.

Maybe there are many who miss the relative simplicity of life before the Internet, but the changes it has wrought are immutable and there’s no going back.

About the author

Paul Croke

Paul Croke, former newspaper editor and longtime Washington DC area freelance writer, has loved gadgets and consumer electronics since he saw his first Dick Tracy watch. He writes about consumer technology. Contact the author.

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