Adapted from the book 100 THINGS WE’VE LOST TO THE INTERNET by Pamela Paul. Copyright © 2021 by Pamela Paul. Published by Crown, an imprint of Random House, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. All rights reserved.
My new book is about the things we’ve lost in the internet era — the things we achingly miss, the things we hardly knew existed, the things to which we can give a hard adios — and about what their absence might mean. Here we pause to document and delight in these recollections, turning them around in our collective minds to admire or mourn or celebrate, to push back against the possibility that the memories, too, may soon disappear. Here are 10.
1. Benign neglect
Back in the days of Sugar Pops and roller skates, grownups had no clue where their kids were, who they were with or what the hell they were up to, and that suited kids just fine. You walked to school on your own or with the kid down the street that Mom disapproved of. She didn’t need to know. Somehow kids grew up anyway.
2. Bad photos
Remember when you never knew what you would get once the little button was clicked? You had to wait to find out, often a week or longer until 24-hour photo shops, with their bargain-basement development quality, were introduced. No one could figure out how to operate the focus. No one knew when to turn off the flash, or how. Browsing through photo albums from this time is like encountering a dark period from an inexplicable and occasionally insane-looking past, one in which everyone cried at parties and scowled through reunions and looked miserable at their brother’s Little League game.
How reassuring it was to know that however dreadful you were in the school play or however extravagantly you flubbed a presentation at work, you would never need to know how truly bad it was. After all, you would never see it yourself, and most people wouldn’t tell you the truth, even if you tried to coax it out of them. The stakes were lower before everything was a performance and all performances were uploaded to be shared and dissected for posterity.
No matter how brief or unfortunate a relationship, you couldn’t help but wonder — months and years later — whatever happened to your ex-boyfriend. If you ever found out anything about his future endeavors, it was usually via a wedding announcement. Most of the time, that was for the best; you and he were over, and even if you were sulky or angry when it ended, it was best not to dwell. There’s no forgetting those exes anymore. Whether you still pine for them or couldn’t care less, you can’t put them out of your mind because they remain your friends on Facebook, or your friend of friends.
5. Record albums
There was a whole delicious process to appreciating a brand-new record album, whether you got it at Tower Records or Merle’s Record Rack or HMV. It was almost an act of religious devotion, from the admiration of the cover art to the slicing of the plastic wrap with a fingernail to the placement of the needle on the precise edge of its vinyl rim. You listened continuously all the way through before flipping to the B side. Yet imagine finding the time today to listen to 12 to 14 tracks straight through, in the order in which they were intended to be heard — it would take nothing short of an extraordinary feat of discipline.
6. Missing out
Instead of overhearing in the school hallway Monday morning about a beach bonfire last Friday night, kids today know all about it while it’s raging, seeing it pass them by in boisterous but fleeting snaps from the dejected vantage point of the living room sofa.
Mention “script,” the shorthand for cursive, to a sixth grader today, and he’ll assume you mean a computer script, which generates web pages, or maybe the script for a TV series. At the Library of Congress, where volunteers are recruited to input old documents into the permanent digitized record, younger staff members have to be paired with those from older generations because they can no longer read cursive at all.
8. Ignoring people
It was useful to pretend to have no idea someone was trying to reach you when you could actually get away with it. How could you have known? You were out, you were sleeping, you were busy, you were away, you had an emergency, you didn’t get the message and you are only just hearing about this now. It was possible and believable to be off the grid. Sorry! But the internet is insistent, and it doesn’t take no for an answer or even take a hint.
9. Being in the moment
Full immersion doesn’t happen when you’re in a group and it doesn’t happen when you’re alone, because while we are digitally present all the time, we are hardly ever fully present in the moment. Sure, there were always people who stopped in the middle of something to take a picture, at least those who had cameras on them. But now we all stop to take pictures. We stop to document with a text, a post, a short video, a story. We combat the effects of this inability to disengage with attempts at wellness and mindfulness, all of us desperately trying to reclaim some small portion of our own goddamn minds.
Remember the feeling of holing up in a hotel room in a city where you knew nobody, and nobody knew where you were, and nobody was trying to get ahold of you? You were free! You didn’t even have to travel to find that unleashed feeling of “I’m here, and they’re over there” — you could just take a break from the hubbub by running errands all day alone. These moments were yours and yours alone. Feels like a long time ago, doesn’t it?
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Pamela Paul is the editor of The New York Times Book Review and oversees all books coverage at The Times. She also hosts the Book Review podcast. 100 Things We’ve Lost to the Internet is her eighth book.