Life Before the Internet by Michael Gentle


What we can learn from the good old days

There’s no such thing as a free disruptive technology, any more than a free lunch. They all change the status quo and come with a price. Gutenberg’s printing press killed off scribes, laser printers killed off the copy shop and video killed the radio star. 

The internet is no exception. 

Consider, for example, the effects of being permanently connected. We can virtually run our lives from a smartphone. It’s quicker, cheaper and more convenient. But it also means we receive hundreds of notifications and alerts each day and are constantly checking our phones. We are mired in a state of permanent interruption, making it virtually impossible to disconnect. We all need downtime to recharge our batteries and reconnect with ourselves, but in today’s world, this is next to impossible.

Before the internet, being unreachable was normal. It was entirely acceptable if nobody knew where you were. You were free to go about your business, read a book or simply do nothing. Downtime was built into everyday life. Good luck trying to experience this level of freedom today. Turn off your phone even for a few hours, and see how popular you’ll be with friends, family and colleagues. As Bruno Patino says in his book, The Goldfish Civilisation, “Spiritual retreats in monasteries have changed: it used to be that we escaped the real world in order to find God, whereas today we escape electronic stimuli in order to simply find ourselves”. 

Fortunately, not all of the changes brought about by the internet have social consequences that we need to be concerned about. Here are some other interesting ways in which life was different:

  • You were more productive at the office. You got work done during the day because you weren’t constantly interrupted by emails. You didn’t spend up to a third of your time replying to letters.
  • Cameras were bulky, photography was expensive, and people took perhaps a hundred photos in a year, and they were rarely shared outside the family. With today’s smartphone cameras, we may well take a hundred photos in a single day, which we can then instantly share with the whole wide world.
  • Travel still had the power to surprise because our tourist knowledge was limited to travel magazines and National Geographic; today, it has become boringly predictable because we’ve already previewed it all online before even stepping onto the plane.
  • Movie plots were more creative, and characters had to think to get things done, crack a murder case or find missing people; in today’s movies, characters have all the expensive technology of the earlier James Bond movies on their phones, and can monitor, track and photograph at will. 

Life Before the Internet highlights many such examples from everyday life – not as an indictment of technology, nor as a call for a return to some idyllic past – but simply to reflect on how much things have changed and to be aware of what we’ve given up. 

The internet is one of the greatest inventions of all time. It has improved our lives beyond measure. Few people (starting with me) would wish to return to the predominantly paper-based era of the late 20th century. That would be like wishing to return to a time when there were no cars or airplanes!

Yet the old way of life often hides positive aspects that we used to take for granted and that are now on the verge of being lost forever. 

An obvious example: before the internet you couldn’t take work home with you. It was physically impossible because everything was paper-based and stayed on your desk. Once you left the office, you disconnected physically and mentally and enjoyed the free time in the evening. Today, your work is always with you on your phone or laptop, and you can’t escape it. Home is now also the office. The two seem to blur into a seamless whole from which it is almost impossible to tune out. There is no more work-life balance. 

The way children are brought up is another example.

Before the internet, children were unreachable. They left for school in the morning and only saw their parents again at the end of the day. So, they became street-smart and learned to fend for themselves, and neither they nor their parents fretted about it. Today, thanks to their phones, they have a permanent lifeline. They can always call mommy and daddy to pick them up or get them out of trouble. And their parents can also call them – and that might well be worse. This permanent two-way connectivity – compounded by the harmful effects of over-protective parenting – results in children growing up lacking autonomy and the ability to solve problems on their own. It’s like a never-ending episode of Who wants to be a millionaire in which you can always phone a friend when you don’t know the answer. 

Children also grow up lacking the social skills and self-confidence of the pre-internet generation. That’s because instead of playing outside with each other, they spend hours each day glued to their screens. The effects on children due to the loss of unsupervised outdoor play – especially in the US – has been well documented by people like Lenore Skenazy (the well-known advocate of free-range parenting), Peter Gray (a psychologist who stresses the importance of self-directed play) and Jonathan Haidt (a social psychologist who has raised the alarm in his new book, “The Anxious Generation”). Children are rarely allowed to make their own decisions and learn from their mistakes. So they no longer know how to evaluate risk, navigate dangers or cope with getting hurt. 

The internet has also made us lazy – adults and children alike – and it’s not good for our health.

We just don’t move around like we used to, because we can virtually run our lives sitting still. From the comfort of our armchair, we can pay our bills, check our bank statements, watch a movie, order in food and catch up on correspondence; we can even order a new armchair. 

Before the internet, you had to physically leave the house to do these things. That meant a lot more physical activity. You had to go to the bank, walk to the nearby restaurant, stand in line at the cinema and go to the post office to post a letter. These days, we go to the gym for exercise; before the internet, life itself was exercise. The internet has become the ultimate labour-saving device, effectively removing the natural physical movements that were once part of everyday life.

Life Before the Internet shows that there was life before Google and smartphones, even though few would recognize it today. It shows how the last unconnected generation used to live, from home and school to work and leisure – and also asks us to reflect on how much we can still keep from the good old days without forfeiting the amazing benefits the internet has given us. 

LIFE BEFORE THE INTERNET By Michael gentle is available from or from wherever books are sold.


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