The recent implosion of the Blockbuster Video chain was, for me, one of those watershed moments when I realized the world really does change, I really am aging, and I really will have to explain a lot of things to my infant son so that he can understand where I'm coming from. And I'm resigned in advance to the fact that whatever age he happens to be when I explain these things, he won't really listen, understand, or care, but it'll still make me feel slightly better to try to describe the world of my youth.
Video stores are an obvious place to start, what with the fact that we'll likely have movies and "TV" "shows" streaming directly to our Google Glass or cerebral cortex within the decade.
"When we wanted to watch a movie that wasn't on TV or in theaters, we went to a place called a video store and looked at box after box containing movies, which were recorded on magnetic tape." And in some ways, this could be the highlight of a night out with friends or a date – you'd spend half an hour – or an hour – or two hours – walking the aisles of the video store (my favorite was Four Star Video Heaven), debating what to watch and why, arguing about film, asking clerks for recommendation, and generally immersing yourself in culture. Going to the video store wasn't the prelude to the activity – in many ways it WAS the activity, and it was awesome, and you're never really going to get to do that. On the other hand, you've had access to the iPhone since birth, so you've got that going for you, which is nice.
"When we wanted to go online, we used something called a modem." And generally speaking, we were talking to people in our area code on a system called a BBS. And the modems were so slow at 300 or 1200 baud that even text would load relatively slowly, and graphics were agonizingly slow unless they were composed of text. (Thus: the rich library of ASCII graphics that is still bouncing around out there for some reason.)
"Phone calls were place-to-place, not person to person." That means that when I called my high school girlfriend at home, the odds were good or excellent that the first person I would talk to would be her mom – or dad. An interaction that might be best punted three or six months down the line in a relationship happened early on, and you just needed to be ready for it. The up side of this is that my parents drilled excellent manners into me at an early age, and my likable phone persona meant that parents instinctively liked me, despite having no real idea of my checkered academic background or disgraceful disciplinary record.
And people were often unavailable, sometimes for a long stretch of time if they were traveling or had roommates unable to take a message (i.e. the vast majority of roommates in college.) You could eagerly want to get a hold of someone to share an urgent insight or ask a question, and you were at the mercy of Chad, who had been up partying too late the night before and didn't know or care where the memo pad was. And rather than finding it, he would just say: "Uh-huh ... yep ... got it" while you relayed your urgent message, in order to sell the idea he was writing down the information that was literally less interesting than anything else in the world to him.
"Maps used to be printed on paper." They would unfold and take up a tremendous amount of space, and if you wanted to fold them back up again, you would need to find an engineer or scientist. (Fortunately, my dad was and still is both of those things.) If you got lost on a map, your best bet would be to stop the car and talk to a locally-based human being, who could hopefully direct you to where you were going, or to find a pay phone – what, you don't know what a pay phone is? – and call whoever you were trying to visit to have them talk you through it.
"Oh, yes, we used to give directions verbally." It was essentially a sport: someone would ask you how to get somewhere, and you'd give them a 15-minute long description of the journey, including landmarks, possible wrong turns, estimated travel time, and whatever street names you happened to remember. And if there was a third party in the room, that third party would jump in and offer THEIR favorite way to get to the place, which would vary from yours in some significant ways and guarantee that the person who asked for directions in the first place would get hopelessly lost and need to find a pay phone.
"Pay phones were like iPhones, but much bigger, with cords on them, located in public places. You'd buy a phone call on them with a quarter. They didn't have any apps. No, they didn't have the Internet, because the Internet was just a crazy thing that several thousand computer science academics and military personnel used to trade pictures of actresses from Star Trek. Yes, Star Trek was around. No, it had different actors."