Ed Power invokes the ghosts of dot matrix printers, floppies, mixed tapes and the old phone box
The past is a foreign country – and, where technology is concerned, an exceedingly baffling one at that. Consider that, less than a decade ago, sending an email on your phone required a PhD in advanced mathematics. If you were to travel back to the year 2000, meanwhile, and ask someone to follow you on Twitter — they would think you were making an inappropriate advance — at best.
But while tech has reshaped the world, it is arguable whether this is always for the better or not. Cast your mind back – if you can – to the pre-mobile phone era, a halcyon age in which your boss did not have the option of contacting you day or night and you didn’t reflexively check your email every 45 seconds. Yes, life was slower — but arguably calmer and less stressful, to boot.
For people in their 20s – the demographic labeled millennials even though they were born long before the year 2000 — “retro” technology must be particularly confusing. Not only can they not imagine a world without mobiles — they can barely countenance a society lacking feature-packed smartphones. To them, a Nokia 3310 is as ancient and mysterious as a Statue on Easter Island – a hulking monstrosity of uncertain purpose.
Here, then, are technologies guaranteed to frazzle the brains of modern youngsters.
In the dim and distant days before wi-fi and memory sticks, the ancients would convey information between computers via arcane items fondly referred to as floppies. Paradoxically, by the year 2000 “floppy” was a misnomer as the discs tended to be fashioned of compacted hard plastic.
In the ‘80s, however, floppy discs truly were floppy and had to be inserted with care into a computer. On the other hand, they made for perfect emergency beer-mats – more than can be said for your fancy memory sticks, kids.
What madness is this? A outdoor receptacle housing a coin-operated...phone? Why not simply send a message by WhatsApp? Well, that’s the thing – in the primordial mists of history, mobile phone were roughly the size of computer printers and more expensive than a family car.
Anyone needing to place a call when out the house was therefore required to use something called a “phone box” – which came with such standard features as a handset coated in chewing gum, a coin receptacle wedged with paper and a weird brown stain across the keypad.
Spending longer than five minutes inside one – did we mention the smell of stale urine? – was an experience all the apps in the world cannot replicate.
In the ‘80s, the average television weighed more than two small children and switching channels meant literally walking over and pressing a button. Scarier yet, broadcasters would do the unthinkable and go off air.
Rise early enough and, instead of a Jeremy Kyle re-run or the Sky Sports ticker, you would be confronted by the RTÉ test-card – a brain-flaying blend of random shapes and colours. On the posher UK channels, the test-card was accompanied by some nice music.
No such indulgences were permitted in god-fearing Ireland, where the test card was paired with an air-splitting bleep. Simply by closing our eyes, many of us can recall its exact pitch and frequency to this day.
The first shock is that, not so long ago, music was something you paid for – with actual money. If you liked an artist and wanted to hear their album all the way through, it was necessary to go into a shop and pay for their record. Being short on cash meant that you might never get to hear Billy Joel’s An Innocent Man from start to finish.
But that is as nothing against the real shock of the mid ‘80s record-buying experience - cassette tapes. Not only were they hissy and packed in tiny boxes, with lids that inevitably splintered within five minutes of purchase.
To access a favorite song you had to physically fast forward the cassette. This brought the inevitable risk of the tape snagging in the machine, forcing you to rewind the entire thing with a pencil. Happy days.
Were a time-traveler to fetch up in a typical office in 1985, they would likely be spooked by a terrifying clatter from the hallway.
Unlike the smooth laser printers of the present day, clunking dot matrixes rattled and shook like a steam train chugging up a steep hill. And that was just when you pressed the ‘on’ button.
Printing a document of any reasonable length meant subjecting your ear-drums to endless rattling and howling – with the understanding that the only thing waiting at the end of the process was a sheaf of squiggly print on white and green lined paper.
When Facebook was just a lucrative twinkle in Mark Zuckerberg’s eye, MySpace was the first and last word in social media. Unfortunately it was also the first and last word in terrible graphic design, with a visual style that might be kindly described as ‘digital vomit’. Colours clashed, type-faces changed for no obvious reason, nobody could figure out what part of the screen they were supposed to look at. The “Zuck’s” balmy blue rival couldn’t come fast enough.
If you wanted to illegally download a record in 1999, it was best to have LOT of time on your hands – it could take hours, sometimes days, for those precious megabytes to accumulate on your hard-drive. As for watching video online – you had about as much chance of switching on the radio and not having your eardrums assaulted by Limp Bizkit.
Nowadays we tell the time the way God intended - by consulting our phones. But mobile phones weren’t always ubiquitous – which was why the unfortunate citizens of the past were required to strap large chunks of metal to their wrists, all for the purpose of working out how long they had to wait until Star Trek: The Next Generation started. How humankind made it out of the 20th century we shall never know.
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