Life Before the Internet and Starbucks…Really

Technology has evolved dramatically since I was in school. My sons have both gone off to college in the past few years…such a mind-trip for me to realize how different their college experience is from a technology and societal perspective. The Internet didn’t exist back then, nor were there Starbucks. No smart phones, either. Back then, the “smarts” were seemingly in the people, not the phones. I actually remember having to memorize all of my friends’ telephone numbers or having to write them down in a telephone directory. Really. And no, the dinosaurs weren’t still roaming…it just may seem like it to today’s kids. 

Obsoleted Soccer Moms lived back in tough times, where the “Smarts” were built into people, not devices!
(acknowledgement to for graphic)

I was reflecting on what a different experience kids have nowadays in college. Keep in mind I was in college in the late 70’s, graduating in 1980.

We didn’t have personal computers back then. I know, hard to believe. If you were nerdy enough to have anything to do with a computer, you were creating punch-cards for the mainframe on campus. And a laptop was simply that…the top of someone’s lap.

We didn’t have cell phones back then. Nor did anyone ever offer anything called wireless access. So if you had told me you had a “hot spot”, I would have kept my distance and suggested you go to the doctor…We didn’t have anything wireless.  And besides, there weren’t any Starbucks back then, so there really wasn’t a place to hang out to use the wireless access (that we didn’t have) for the laptops (that didn’t exist) anyway.

The most expensive thing I brought when I moved in to my dorm was my electric typewriter. I actually had a very fancy model that “self-corrected” (of course, only if you backspaced at the very moment you made the error); the concept of “cut” and “paste” hadn’t been invented yet. If you didn’t notice your typo until the end of the page…you re-typed the entire page. I became an excellent typist. And did you get the point that there was no “spell check” capability back then? You actually had to look things up in a dictionary and know grammar and punctuation yourself.

Microsoft Word didn’t exist yet, although Microsoft and Apple did exist, both founded in 1976, but neither was a household name back then and they most certainly didn’t have products available for the college student!

I did have a car when I moved into my dorm. A 1976 Capri, cost about $5,000 as I recall. And filling the gas-tank cost about 70 cents per gallon when I started college, and about $1.25 when I finished…that $1.25 price, by the way, was courtesy of the 1979 energy crisis: during this time, we had to line up for gas and there was something called odd-even rationing. You could only get gas on “even” or “odd” days (based on your license plate number). I hate to admit it, but my dad (who had two cars, one with an odd number beginning, and the other with an even number beginning) would often swap his license plates if he needed gas for the other car.

Back in the gas and full service!

Back in the day…
Cheap gas and full service!

Of course, most gas stations still filled your tank up for you, back then (self-serve was only for real men!)…a few even still asked you if you wanted your windows cleaned.

In college, I had never heard of the internet. OK, I know that takes a few minutes to sink in….one….two…three…probably worth repeating. I had never heard of the internet, back when I was in college. True, the rudimentary beginnings of the internet were alive and well at MIT, UCLA and other universities as a “professor to professor” college communications pipeline, but nothing was available to the rest of us. And although Email was first introduced on this pipeline in the early 70’s, it wasn’t popularized for all of us until the IBM PC was born later in 1981. In any case, during my college years there was no internet available to the general public… and most certainly there wasn’t anything I could connect to via my electric typewriter.

Given we didn’t have internet…yes, I know…many of you are probably still grappling with that…I understand…but given we didn’t, we didn’t have Facebook, LinkedIn or Twitter, or the many other applications that teenagers (and us old farts) now use everyday. We couldn’t “IM” our friends. No text-messaging. We couldn’t email. We couldn’t chat. We couldn’t Skype. There was no downloadable porn. There was no surfing (well, only the ocean kind). And it wasn’t until many years later that the World Wide Web came about.

We didn’t have iTunes or any of the music-focused filesharing sites (and although I know it is almost as hard to believe as the lack of internet, we didn’t have iPods, so the lack of iTunes really wasn’t a big deal). Perhaps not having music strapped to our ears as we walked around was really a good thing given that the popular song of 1980 was YMCA by the Village People!


So, how did we communicate without email, text messaging, a cell phone, and all of the social networking sites? Well, in my dorm we used a fixed line telephone, attached to the wall with a cord. Yes, a cord. And most of the time, the cord was way too short for where you wanted to sit while talking on the phone. My friends in their dorm had one phone per floor; if you called them you kind of just hoped someone would answer and that they’d be nice enough to yell for the person you were hoping to speak to. Most of the time it didn’t work and you were left hanging on the phone.

If we couldn’t afford to call long distance to catch up with our old high school friends who were attending a different college, there was really only one other technology available to us, short of getting in a car to go for a visit. No, we didn’t have owl messengers like Harry Potter (after all, he hadn’t been invented yet, either)…we wrote.

What is that, you say? We wrote… letters. In cursive! I still have a box of them…letters from friends around the country, sharing their thoughts and feelings and college experiences. And because I have a box of them, I can tell you that first class postage in 1980 was 15 cents.

So, we wrote letters…long letters detailing our lives. “Real-time”, back then, was getting a letter that talked about something that had happened in the previous month (versus text messaging about what you just did 2 seconds ago or were in fact still doing).

I remember how great getting a letter was when I was away at college. Someone actually had to think of me, get an envelope and paper, write a letter, find a stamp, find my address, address the envelope and get it in the mail. How cool is that. Now, I can post a note on Facebook in 10 seconds and hundreds of my friends get it. I am prompted that it is someone’s birthday and I can kill that social obligation off in 10 more seconds.

We lost touch with most of our high school friends back then because it was too hard to keep in touch. Our college friends became our new family. Now, with Facebook and other social networking sites, I think it will be interesting to see how that changes. Will kids keep those 386+ high school Facebook friends or will they “start over”?

In my dorm room we didn’t have a TV, nor did we have the laptop to watch a downloaded video (if in fact, downloaded video existed, which it didn’t). There weren’t any generally available gaming platforms like Playstation and Xbox…Pong was available in the mid-70’s, and the incredibly sophisticated (for the time) PacMan video game came out in the early 80’s… I don’t recall even having a stereo (they were probably all too large back then to have in that tiny dorm room!) although the following year I do recall playing records in my student apartment. And I played cassette tapes (which I still have) in my Capri. A friend of mine played 8-track tapes in his car, bet today’s teenagers have never even heard of those.

Ever heard of 8-Track?

Ever heard of 8-Track?

How did we ever entertain ourselves!

I took photos of my dorm life with a camera that had a (pre-purchased) film cartridge that you had to physically drop off at the local drugstore for developing. You got the pictures back along with the clunky negatives (that I still have saved in some box somewhere…). There wasn’t any digital photography, any digital cameras, and no digital world yet. I couldn’t have the pictures mailed to me or available online, I had to go pick them up when they were ready. To share a photograph I had to make physical copies of it by filling out a paper ordering form with the negative’s number, drop that off at the drugstore…wait a few weeks, return to the drugstore…and send them in a LETTER to my friends and family. Imagine. Time elapsed between actually taking a photo and getting a copy to a friend was probably months, if it ever even happened.

I guess the good news of that was the no-one snapped an “unflattering” photo of you on their cell phone (since they didn’t exist), posting it on the internet (since it didn’t exist) for all the world to see.

When we actually saw our friends and family, and it was their birthday, we never bought gift cards. Again, probably impossible to imagine, but gift cards didn’t exist back then…You could get a paper gift certificate at a few department stores, but you had to go into the store to buy those. Most of the time we actually had to go out and purchase a gift, or give cash. And because…I’m sorry I have to keep mentioning it…there was no internet, you couldn’t order something at the last minute online for that special someone on their special day.

My fixed line phone in the dorm was rotary dial. I’m not sure my kids would even know what that is. There was no caller id, no call waiting, no call blocking…just good old fashion dial-tone. Oh, and no phone directory to maintain all of the numbers you needed to call…remember that! We old farts, back in the day, had to remember all of the most important numbers. If I knew your number, you KNEW you were special! I think I knew well over a dozen numbers of friends. Now, I can’t remember anyone’s number (not even my husband’s work number!) as they are all programmed into the phone. Maybe this is really the reason for dementia…we’re not having to remember things anymore…the technology is taking that over, so maybe our brains are starting to rot.

When I did my research reports in college, I couldn’t go online (oops…sorry to have to mention that again), so I went to the college or public library. Remember checking out books? You had to have your library card to check out a book. The cards weren’t able to do anything back then, like now. You couldn’t scan them when you checked out the books or anything. A nice middle-aged woman was usually around to manually check out the book for you, with a date actually ink-stamped in the book so you knew when it was due.

When I didn’t read the Shakespeare play, I had to go to the bookstore and buy the Cliff Notes; I couldn’t just go online while my nails were drying. When I didn’t go to class, I couldn’t just have a friend email me their typed notes or video of the lecture, or scan and send me whatever the teacher handed out. I had to get the notes and copy them…I think I used cursive for that, too.

And when I wrote up that assignment, I usually used cursive for the draft. Now, kids do know the concept of “draft” as it is used in computer and online applications. I am talking about a different kind of ‘draft”. I am talking about how you would write out your paper, make changes, and basically get it pretty darn perfect…before you spent time typing it up…because, as I mentioned earlier, make a mistake in the middle of your paper, and you had to retype the entire thing. Many kids in my dorm, who couldn’t type, paid other students to do that.

We had no electronic access available to us for things like school registration, banking, or any kind of bill paying. There were no ATMs. We received no electronic reminders that it was time to do things. We couldn’t pay our phone bill online at the last minute because we forgot to do it earlier by mail. Paperwork often was done “in triplicate.” remember needing to press hard to make sure your writing got through all of those copies?

I could probably go on for many more pages…advances in technology just keep changing our everyday lives so completely. I will ship off my son with more electronics gear than I currently have in my home office; and that electronics gear will be worth more than all the possessions I had my last year of college, including the Capri.

Yet, many things in college will be the same for my son, even all of these years later. He’ll meet life-long friends. He’ll have his first (or maybe…um….second) beer. He’ll have relationships. He’ll wear dirty clothes when he forgets to do his laundry. He’ll bum money off of friends when he is running low. He’ll give money to friends when they are running low. He’ll cut a few classes. He won’t get enough sleep or he’ll sleep an entire day. He’ll grow up, make his own decisions and he’ll learn to live with the result of those decisions. He’ll become his own person.

And like my parents and their parents, I wistfully look forward to that day.

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