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Typewriters, Pay Phones, Madonna’s Virginity: Remembering the Lost World of the Twentieth Century

June 7, 2011

A great danger looms over today’s youth, and it’s more insidious than Bieber Fever, or even Bieber Ebola. It’s the danger that the leaders of tomorrow, who are now texting something, will grow up in complete ignorance of the way things used to be. For as we olds know only too well, as we struggle to stuff ourselves into our skinny jeans and salve our wounds from the ill-advised Ollie 180 that we didn’t quite land, things were a lot different in the days when “handheld device” meant something along the lines of a pencil.  How did we even manage to survive, let alone prosper, in a dark age when “angry birds” meant squadrons of bloodthirsty chickadees might attack the moment you stepped outside? When the number of cable channels was only in the dozens? When the Rolling Stones were mere sexagenarians? Lest the millennial generation never know what it was like to grow up in a world without Miley Cyrus, I’ve created the following guide to the prehistory of the technological wonders and conveniences so many now take for granted. Nostalgic, maybe; factual, indubitably; but mainly, a window into the lost world of the twentieth century, when thumbs were used mainly for hitchhiking, or sitting on.

Cell phones. Before cell phones, people were forced to take two tin cans and some string, and use the sharp edges of the cans to slice their wrists, and the string to hang themselves in sheer despair, because they didn’t have cell phones.

iPad. The iPad was preceded, naturally enough, by the hPad. The “h” was for hand-cranked, and the “pad” was a little stack of paper kind of stuck together at one edge. No one was really sure how it worked or what you were supposed to do with it.

Blackberry. The name “Blackberry” arose from the necessity of crushing blackberries and using the juice to “write” “notes,” because, apparently, we didn’t have “ink” back then, either.

3-D Movies. Before 3-D, we didn’t call them “movies,” we called them “flatties.” In those days, you sat in the dark, and James Cameron would randomly poke at you with a stick to create the illusion of 360-degree space. Many found this preferable to his actual movies flatties.

Nook and Kindle. Since there was no way to read before these were invented, we mostly just stood around and smoked cigarettes and drank coffee. Sometimes we would we kill time by going to the flatties.

Twitter. Humans struggled for millennia to convey their most profound and complex ideas with a single letter or punctuation mark—attempting, say, to warn of an impending Mongol invasion with a message like “&,” or to summarize the earliest investigations into the nature of the universe as “@.” Happily, the slow but steady march of evolution (including, for example, the introduction of “lulz” by Shakespeare in 1598) at last brought our species to the pinnacle of its expressive potential through the most powerful means of communication still yet invented: a full 140 characters.

Facebook. Some of us remember when there were only faces and books, and no one had been clever enough to put them together. We were all so, so stupid. Facebook also codified the concept of “friend,” whereas before that time one had a circle of “likeys” or “no-likeys.” These proto-“friendships” usually involved a lot of grunting and gesturing.

MP3s. This convenient format was a real boon to classical music fans who were previously forced to hire entire orchestras to perform their favorite symphonic masterpieces, since, I mean, how else were you going to hear them? Ninety-nine cents for a download from iTunes seems like a pretty good deal when you consider that it would have cost you around $52,000 (including rehearsals and overtime) to listen to the New York Philharmonic play that music from that one movie, or that piece with the part where the flutes go “Toodle-oodle-oodle-oodle-EET!,” as recently as 1997. Otherwise, you had to just sing it yourself, and no one’s yet figured out how to convincingly do the cannon part from the 1812 Overture. And going “BOOOF-F-F-F-F-F!” and making that kind of throat-clearing noise isn’t even close.

Emoticons. It was extremely difficult to tell how someone was feeling before emoticons. You would ask them, and they would do their best to manipulate their fingers to look like a colon next to a parenthesis. It is believed by some historians that the Allies inadvertently gave the go-ahead to the Soviets’ expansionist plans at the Yalta Conference when Stalin mistakenly read FDR’s “refill” gesture to a cocktail waiter as a less-than sign followed by a 3.

YouTube. Before YouTube, we would wait for hours, usually in vain, for our dogs, cats, babies, and gophers to do something amusing. It never occurred to us back then that young children exhibiting the lingering effects of dental anesthesia, or videos of people watching other videos, constituted entertainment. Our perspective in those days was, admittedly, rather narrow.

Wikipedia. If you needed to know something, you would ask the nearest person who happened to be wearing glasses, who, it was generally assumed, would have the correct answer.

Blogs. Bloggers have always been around. We just used to call them “needy, self-absorbed people who talk too much.”

24 Comments leave one →
  1. June 7, 2011 2:49 am

    As a fellow needy self-absorbed chatterbox I will print out your post and give it to my niece who is always too busy texting and perusing tumblr to experience life the way it used to be.

    • June 7, 2011 1:30 pm

      Hmm. From what you say, I doubt she’ll absorb much from a printout. I suggest that you first blend it into a smoothie for her.

      • June 7, 2011 3:12 pm

        She’s pretty savvy, but a smoothie will put a smile on her face as she reads and rolls her eyes at me. I luv her though … she’s my mini-dragon lady.

  2. June 7, 2011 5:46 am

    I am certainly out of the “tech loop”. I use only the last two on the list and don’t know the first thing about most of the others. I do, however, have a real telephone next to the box of envelops and stamps at the corner of my desk which is made of actual wood. .

    • June 7, 2011 1:16 pm

      Real telephone? I have a switchboard in my apartment manned by a gum-cracking operator named Mabel.

  3. reppelmann permalink
    June 7, 2011 8:51 am

    Awe, flatties were great. I remember Blair Witch Project when someone actually dropped a piece of intestine in my lap. Good times.

    • June 7, 2011 1:24 pm

      Agreed. Kids today are so lazy that they never even bother to take entrails to the theater anymore.

  4. June 7, 2011 11:31 am

    Excellent and sadly hysterical.

    • June 7, 2011 1:13 pm

      Don’t be so modest, Lenore; I saw you kick Tony Hawk’s ass at the World Cup of Skateboarding some years back, and the fact that you were knitting a tea cozy as you did your 360 hardflip made you a crowd favorite.

  5. June 7, 2011 3:43 pm

    I just want to comment that I felt rather smug because I knew what an Ollie 180 was even without looking at your link. And then the rest of your post just made me feel old. I wonder if I have some tin cans and string around here.

    • June 7, 2011 7:02 pm

      Take a Rubik’s Cube and a Tamagotchi and call me in the morning.

  6. June 7, 2011 6:13 pm

    Screwing over the Print Industry was a lot harder back then too.

    Transferring a whole sunday edition of the Times to “Silly Puddy” took nerve and the majority of an afternoon before you just said “F**k it” & paid the dollar for it.

    • June 7, 2011 7:04 pm

      Silly Putty was an invaluable funny-papers accessory. Henry always made more sense to me reversed and stretched out.

  7. infinite monkey theorem permalink
    June 8, 2011 6:50 pm

    Misty water colored memories! (predates both the Retina and Amoled touch screens, and will be upgraded to “retro” as soon as someone begins to care.) I love the bait-n-switch on the cell phone…beddy beddy nice! Facebook…yes, I have had quite a revelation concerning my “friends”! For example, that girl in elementary who stole my David Cassidy lunchbox, spawning a decade of spy vs. spy style antics, (I bring this up only because I know you can relate), suddenly decides to bury the cyber hatchet. I think not!
    ;- )
    As for Youtube…I can remember the days when you actually tried NOT to watch other peoples home movies! Well that’s all this “needy, self-absorbed people who talk too much” has for now…off to friend a bunch of people on Facebook!

    • June 8, 2011 7:48 pm

      Ha! Your comments are always the croutons on the salad of my posts. As for the lunchbox thief, I suggest you send a “friend” request with the following message: “I think I love you … to give me my shit back!”

      And: Quick! Sell some drawings so that you can buy this:

  8. June 9, 2011 1:25 pm

    I’m still using the hand-cranked pad. Are you suggesting there’s something better?

  9. June 10, 2011 10:10 am

    I think I may use “Nostalgic, maybe; factual, indubitably” after every statement I make today.

    • June 10, 2011 11:06 am

      There’s nothing like a semicolon to show that you mean business; or can’t decide between a period and a comma.

      • June 10, 2011 11:16 am

        Ah yes, the semicolon. It affords a pause that’s just a little longer than the comma, but not quite as halting as the period.

  10. June 21, 2011 3:04 am

    I hate to be a smarty-pants but you neglected to inform your readership that FaceBook was born as a result of the chance meeting of a police mugbook compiler and a “Cherry Blossoms” catalogue editor.

    • June 21, 2011 12:37 pm

      See? Who says that romance, documented in agonizing detail for the entire world to see, is dead?


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