Life Before the Internet


This week I came up against some technical difficulties. My work email was down and I wasn’t able to send or receive any messages for most of the day. Luckily I was able to get on with existing projects and I wasn’t up against any pressing deadlines that would have made it a disaster rather than an inconvenience.

I’m old enough to remember life before the internet, but not old enough to have worked in an office without using an email account.

The outage made me wonder to myself, half jokingly….What on earth did people do at work all day before emails and the internet?!

I’ve read that the most successful workers are ones that are proactive rather than reactive, meaning that they ignore their emails and focus on completing their highest priorities first rather than getting caught up in other tasks.

That ability to focus on only the most pressing work is something I strive for, but it’s easier said than done. Especially when, like me, you work in the field of communications, marketing, and social media where reaction times can have a significant impact on how your efforts are perceived. It’s a difficult balance to say the least.

Offline, All the Time

The experience also made me think about life in general before the internet.

I resisted getting a cell phone for the longest time. It was an extra expense, since I already had a land line, and frankly I didn’t WANT to be available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, wherever I go and whatever I do.

Then, I realized that the way people socialized had quickly changed.

Before mobile phones and constant connectivity, people would plan to meet at a fixed location at a fixed time. You would make an appointment, basically, and if you got held up for some reason, the other person would just have to wait. Or leave.

As cell phones became more and more common, making plans to meet up with your friends required a lot less planning. All of a sudden, you could just kind of drift to the same general area and send each other messages about when and where you’d be in the same place at the same time.


For people too young to remember getting together any other way, can you imagine trying to find your buddies at a music festival, or a darkened movie theatre, a huge lecture hall, or a particular restaurant or coffee shop without the help of messaging OR GPS??!

Truly, us pre-internet people had it rough.

Pre-Email Collaboration

I saw a documentary years ago…and I can’t remember the exact topic…but in the late 1970s or early 1980s, two brilliant minds in the field of [insert academic area of study] were working together on a project and sharing research. One lived in the US and one lived in the UK.

In order to share information, each expert meticulously typed up their findings on a typewriter into stacks of paper containing all of their findings. They would then ship the paper files by mail to the other person, which would take at least a couple of weeks to arrive.

The recipient would then spend the next several months reading through the findings, adding their thoughts and data, typing up their response, and would then send another package by mail back again.


They might have had a phone call or two, but the long-distance phone rates were very high and even short phone calls would be very expensive. They mainly communicated through letters.

By the end of it, the two collaborators made an incredible breakthrough and changed the course of [insert area of academic study] forever. The entire process took many, many years.

It’s hard to imagine that we’ve undergone such an incredible change of pace in only 30-40 years, but we have.

One Thing at a Time

I know it’s naive to assume that life must have been rosy and carefree before – we are so quick to romanticize the past, and changes in culture and technology are always feared by people living in the semi-present – but it does make me wonder if our expectations have become a bit warped in the rush to keep up.

For example, I read a chain email years ago that described how people used to do laundry before washing machines and dryers. It listed in detail the tasks that a housekeeper or average mom would have to go through to get all of the household’s clothes clean: soaking, boiling, scrubbing with a washboard, wringing, hang-drying, folding, etc. It suggested that we all be very thankful that we don’t have to work that hard anymore.

Image Credit: Charming InkIt struck me because, while I’m sure doing laundry the old fashioned way was grueling work and a lot less convenient than popping everything in a machine and walking away, it was probably one of only a handful of things that the person had to do that day.

It was called “laundry day” because that was the day you devoted to getting the laundry done. There weren’t 1000 other things to do that were all waiting for your attention. In fact, in Victorian times, if you were wealthy enough, you had staff that just did laundry all day every day.

The idea of “dinner in 30 minutes” is a challenge these days, but would sound ridiculous to a Victorian cook who would have food on the go all day long and could easily prepare a meal or snack for a surprise guest in far less than 30 minutes.

Give and Take

Technology has given us a great deal of freedom and entertainment, but it’s also made us busier by making everything we do self-serve. The more conveniences we welcome into our lives, the more self-sufficient we are supposed to be, and the more productive.

Why hire a person to take care of tasks when there’s an app for that and you can get it done yourself in just seconds? Well…because now your phone as 1000 apps on it and you don’t have time to use all of them.

switchboard1943Bell System International Switchboard in 1943

It’s a trixy trade-off, and despite what we’re meant to believe, we don’t always come out ahead.

While I’m certainly comfortable turning off my phone and staying offline during a vacation, I do know the anxiety of losing my phone, losing my internet, and finding myself disconnected involuntarily. It sucks. And it’s surprisingly disorienting.

It makes me realize how dependent I am on these technologies, and makes me wonder what my life would look like had they never been invented, for better or for worse.


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