Five Ways Things Were Better in the Pre-Smartphone Internet Days


Happy Friday! First off I wanted to again thank everyone for so many great comments across the entire ’10 Days of You’ series … it was really amazing to read, and the realization of how much of myself I exposed through these seemingly simple lists makes the comments even more meaningful.

The picture above is my Day 5 collage from Megan’s ‘Ab Challenge’ … and I am pretty pleased with my progress – I am up over a 2 minute plank along with the rest of the ab work and continuing to get in my runs of around 8 – 9 miles every day.

When I took a couple of weeks to ‘step back’ from blogging a few months ago, there were a number of frustrations and other things I needed to sort out … which have ended up in three different draft posts I am finally dealing with. One is on how people treat others, another is on honesty … and this one is about the inefficiency of blogging as a form of communication.

But just saying that by itself doesn’t really mean anything without context, so I wanted to explain WHY I find blogging to be such an inefficient time-soak, and compared to what. As I did that I was thinking about a bunch of other ways technology has become more time-intensive without necessarily delivering more value over the last couple of decades … oh, and before you jump to the comments immediately to tell me how wrong I am, I rebut pretty much every one of my points later in the post!


1. USENET vs. Forums vs. Blogging

Does anyone reading this remember the days before the web? When I got out of college and wanted to continue to be able to communicate with friends, there was email. Modems were mostly 1200 baud (bits per second … about twice as fast as you can type), and used a phone line. But there was also this thing called USENET.

USENET groups were discussion groups that were handled on a distributed network of servers that replicated the discussions worldwide. You would have a single USENET reader program that would load all of your discussion from your assigned server. Your program would track read and unread, and also discussions you ‘starred’, started or participated in.

So if you were interested in new running shoes, instead of writing on your blog ‘hey guys, what would you recommend for me for running shoes?’ you would post the question to the group rec. running, and a discussion would start … you would supply details, get questions, probably have a side thread or two about certain manufacturers being crap, and so on. Very often the discussions took on a life of their own.

And how would you find groups? Search your server. If you had just listened to music and wanted to see about others who liked that piece, you might go to rec. music.jazz. Or if you had a programming question you could go to comp.lang.c++ and people from all over the world would try to help.

USENET was a very democratic area, where anyone could start a discussion, and once it was out there … it was no longer ‘yours’. But with the rise of the web in the 90s, special interest websites popped up everywhere, gradually killing off USENET participation. An early site I helped out with and participated on was, which came out after the game Dark Forces as fans waited for the first Jedi Knight game that eventually arrived in 1997. There was news, but mostly it was about the discussions.

What happened with web forums was that the discussions of USENET were decentralized – so you could find a running site which would have all sorts of discussion topics about technique, equipment, and so on. Most also had ‘off topic’ areas where you could talk about music, politics or whatever. Suddenly if you were a video game fan you needed to track a dozen forums to keep up with all of your discussions! But it remained democratic to an extent – all members were pretty much equal, with moderators and site owners having the final word.

Blogs are different – my blog begins and ends with what I want to talk about. If you find my subjects interesting you can comment and follow my posts. But what I found when I started tracking running blogs two years ago was that within the comments were always MORE blogs … and many of them were really cool. So you’d follow another and another and … suddenly you have an out of control subscription list, and this is just as a reader!

But what happens is you have a question you want to ask? Do you search for someone else asking and hope their answers work for you? Do you put your own question in someone else’s comments? No … you make your own blog. And suddenly you realize that there is a lot to blogging:
– Creating content that interests you and hopefully some others
– Reading all of the awesome blogs out there
– Commenting on those blogs
– Responding to comments on YOUR blog!

So suddenly we look back over the last 25 years and realize that we have gone from an in-depth discussion of the harmonic implications of the song ‘Circle’ from Miles Smiles, including several thousand comments in a group with tens of thousands of ‘members’ across dozens of countries … to, well, me introspectively writing a blog article complaining about blogging compared to ‘the good old days’.


2. PDAs and Dedicated MP3 Players compared to Smartphones

First – MP3 Players. We all know that distracted driving is incredibly dangerous, yet I cannot begin to count the number of people I see on their phones or ‘looking at their laps’ while driving. I know a number of people who use their smartphones as MP3 players. Here is a quick test – how many actions does it take you to stop the current song, change to a new artist, find a certain song on a certain album and play that? And how much ‘screen look’ time? Without doing the math, let em be blunt – it is MUCH less efficient, and MORE dangerous, than on a click-wheel iPod. Which is why I have one in my car.

How is something that takes more effort and distraction to complete a task more efficient? It isn’t! Smartphones are simply less efficient music players, and a bad choice for the car.

Similarly, our smartphones are amazingly powerful tools and the apps we now have are stunning in their depth and breadth. Yet if I had serious math to do on the go I would choose the 20-year old HP 200LX over any of them … in a heartbeat! With Lotus 1-2-3, a full HP scientific calculator, a hardware keyboard and dedicated numeric keypad … POWER! And that was one reason I held off on ‘smartphones’ until Android – ‘convergence’ devices were always inferior.

Look at the keyboard on the HP Jornada 728 from 2002, and you might realize how well it would have worked as something to carry to every meeting and type up notes, do (offline) email, and so on. Looking at the front you might realize it has dedicated hardware media controls – yes it was my MP3 player for quite a while!

It has taken a long time for these convergence devices to catch up – something like the iPad Mini in a Belkin keyboard case is a great replacement for the 728 in every way. But think about it – how great of an accomplishment is it to ‘finally surpass a 12 year old piece of hardware of similar price’ … and to need add-on accessories to do it?

Paar im Restaurant schaut auf Handys

3. Being ‘In The Moment’ vs. ‘Always On’

There is a joke that we are raising a generation that appears to have an unnatural and humorous fascination with their crotches … that is they think they are ‘sneaking’ cell phone use or somehow being more polite by keeping it under the table – but it doesn’t change the reality of the situation.

Think about it – when was the last time your were out to dinner with friends or family and you DIDN’T have to repeat something because someone’s attention was on their phone? The priority order is skewed – we are more worried about who is on our smartphone than who is across the table.

My point? It has been shown that for all of the ‘social’ aspects, our smartphones have made us much less socially engaged and worse at handling routine interactions. That is NOT progress.


4. Punctuality and Reliability

When I had my first job out of college, there were essentially no cell phones and pretty much all computers were desktops (and many people didn’t have external email addresses). If you wanted to have a meeting, you generally had to call someone – and if you needed to alter plans, you again needed to call them.

Just this afternoon I had a meeting to help someone with analyzing some data. At 5 minutes after the meeting was supposed to start at my desk, I got a text asking if they could have 10 more minutes and if we could meet at THEIR desk. I didn’t even think twice about it until I was walking to their office, but that sort of thing would never have happened even 10 years ago.

It all reminds me of this:

“In the US, where punctuality is usually seen as important, mobile phones make us later. We’re more likely to schedule things spontaneously, and then reschedule at the last minute via mobile phone.”

Oh – and THIS video pretty much sums it up.


5. Vacation and Off-Time

I remember going on vacation to Disney in 2001 when Blackberry was a new thing … and I had one of the models like in the picture (but they weren’t in color yet) and for the first day the constant buzzing bothered me and I felt ‘compelled’ to check. But the second morning as we were getting ready, I took one last look, shut it down and locked it in the hotel safe. I didn’t take it out again until we left.

When was the last time you took a cell-phone free vacation? Or brought your phone but actually limited it to taking pictures, keeping up basic communications and that was it? For more and more people it is like the actual number of vacationers has doubled – you have your family … and their phones!

Bonus. The Counter-Points

Of course, for every point I just made there is a counterpoint … and since they seemed obvious to me, I will make them!

The Joy of Blogging – it isn’t SUPPOSED to Replace USENET/Forums – Blogging is all about the celebration of the individual voice and the building of community. We love hearing what our friends have to say – both in posts and in comments. We have something to add and are interested in the reply for the original poster.

It is that celebration of voices and community that makes blogging so great – and worth the challenge of the hard work and time required. I think about the amazing people I have met, the number of folks I genuinely consider friends at this point, and how much faster I have learned so much about them, and shared so much of myself, by blogging and reading blogs. There are people I have talked with on web forums for 20 years regularly I know less about than bloggers I have followed for 3 months. It is amazing.

Also, those discussion I mention STILL happen – in web forums. If you want to talk music theory, head to All About Jazz, where there are incredibly talented people ready to talk – and share annotated links, multimedia files, and other stuff not possible 25 years ago. Same for optimizing virtual instruments in Digital Performer (MOTUForums), and gaming frame rates (numerous forums). Point is – they’re out there.

Also, my USENET example comes from a time when the entire population of the internet was about 100 times SMALLER than the number of people who have viewed the #selfie video. Think about that for a minute … this is even before AOL came along, before ‘text speak’ existed, before most houses had a computer.

Smartphones vs. MP3 and PDAs – When I use my iPhone for music in the car, I am not playing just from when I have remembered to load onto the device, but instead from my entire music library. Last week I wanted to hear ‘Black Radio’ from Robert Glasper (check it out) but on my iPod I only had the ‘Black Radio 2’ album. On my phone that is no problem.

Also, on my phone I have iTunes Radio, Slacker, Spotify, Rdio, Amazon Music, Google Music, and more to play music, Shazam to identify and buy anything I hear while out and about, as well as any number of musical instruments if I hear a tune and want to learn on the go.

Also, I have a full HP-15 calculator on my phone as well as full-featured statistical analysis programs on my iPad. I can go into the lab, grab data, analyze and graph, and report it out all from my tablet quite easily in a way I never could without a full laptop in the past.

Smartphones Require Social Discipline – if you are on a early date and look like the couple above … smartphones are not your biggest issue. Communication requires … well, communication. There are times when you WILL look like that, and sometimes it can be fun – there are times Lisa and I are hearing from the kids, or have posted a picture of us on a date and are getting responses and sharing them together.

It is up to us – technology really CAN add to the social environment … we just need to use discipline and always remember to prioritize the people we are with.

Smartphones Allow Flexibility – I remember getting crappy directions to a place in Cambridge way back in the late 80s, a part of the city I’d never been to, and struggling to find it. I finally found a pay phone, thankfully had change, and called the office to get better directions … which were only somewhat helpful as I had to call once again to notify them I’d be late.

With a smartphone and GPS none of that would have happened. Also, that scenario of the quickly changed meeting worked out fine (although notification BEFORE the start of a meeting would always be better). Social norms still need to apply – we need to be polite and respect other people’s time and feelings … but otherwise rapid communications allows unprecedented flexibility.

Smartphones on Vacation – you know that commercial of the family trip where the daughter seems totally disengaged and into her cell phone, yet at some point produces something documenting everything they have done with ‘best vacation ever’ capturing so many great moments? That is closer to reality … sure our devices tag along – but they also help us grab moments, because as the saying goes the best camera is the one that is always with you and ready to go!

So What Do YOU Think? Do I have any points, Did I negate them all with my counter-points, or is this just my ‘Grumpy Old Man’ showing?!?

20 thoughts on “Five Ways Things Were Better in the Pre-Smartphone Internet Days

  1. I have thought about all the same things regarding the internet and smart phones. I’m torn because there is so much good and bad. Maybe mostly bad, not sure. My husband visited his old college and said the kids there were far more concerned with “looking like” they’re having fun than with actually having fun. Appearances have become everything and we definitely didn’t need that.

    But, just the speed at which you can search for information, like minded people, and speak through email, etc can really enrich your life, although then we wind up being overloaded with information that we don’t need and that’s not relevant. For more introverted people it can make it so much easier to connect with others and reach out, but I’m not sure if easier is always better.

    In my gut, I do feel like smartphones are a time drain and make us lazier, more superficial, hurt relationships, less focused on everything we need to be and just overall take us in a direction that’s bad for everyone. BUT in my gut I also feel like I wouldn’t be as happy with my life as I am today if I didn’t have all the resources from online. It has helped me tremendously too! Tough subject and great post!

    • haha – that is a wonderful comment and tells me that I hit a nerve without being a curmudgeon or preachy … it really is tough, because I see the problem (heck, I AM the problem …) but also the benefits …

  2. Though I don’t really remember a time before the internet, I DO remember pre-cellphone days or even when all they were were for making calls…I super agree that things were better for a lot of reasons pre-technology. My biggest pet peeve is when I’m out with ppl and everyone’s on their phone. What’s the point of even being together?…sigh

    • I agree – and you know what … it isn’t just young people! Older people are every bit as bad about being absorbed and ignoring etiquette! Ugh! But it is hard because I have always had electronics of some type, and would be hard pressed to give it up. My wife says she never wanted a smartphone, but now that she has one she can’t imagine NOT having one! ๐Ÿ™‚

  3. Haha on the “grumpy old man”! And the crotch fascination. While I don’t really understand (and never used) USENET, I think your points are really valid – especially (for me) the ones about being in the moment and off-time. I think this was one of the reasons I used to love cruises (so easy and cheap when we lived in Miami) – you are forced to disconnect, which is so awesome! Congrats on the planking.

    • Thanks Megan – cruises … tough life, eh?

      It is so weird now to go somewhere and not have service – that happened on my trail run last week! Weird! As for the ‘crotch fascination’ – two things to look for (a) people at intersections obviously looking at their phone and (b) kids with phones at a restaurant with their parents.

  4. I love how your posts cause me to really think a lot and analyze my own feelings on things. So, I actually don’t remember ever not having internet in my life (although I do remember AOL dial up) and I have always had a computer for as far back as I can remember, but technology sure has changed us. I mean, I joke with my friends about what we used to do before cell phones…wait until we got home to use our hard lines to call each other…**GASP** I totally agree with #3 about Being โ€˜In The Momentโ€™ vs. โ€˜Always Onโ€™. From a social aspect, I notice this a lot and we have a rule at home that at dinner, during game nights, etc we don’t touch our phones (this is the hardest for my teenage nieces and nephew who still try to sneak it under the table!!) But from a work perspective, I am 85% of the time “on”. I have gotten A LOT better with this since we had A, but pre-baby, I was 100% available all the time! It was so bad that the day we got married, I was answering emails while sitting in the spa in Jamaica getting my hair and makeup done. Crazy, I know! Just typing that makes me cringe! HA!

    • Thanks Sara – I feel like it creeps up on us without knowing. And then suddenly you’re sitting in a spa answering emails … or checking your blackberry right before heading to some Disney park for the day, or whatever. I do love it when kids try to sneak their phones like that – that is why I call it the ‘strange crotch fascination’ … and kids get really embarrassed by it, but also find it hilarious (high school kids). I am a constant work-in-progress in terms of tech usage.

  5. Fantastic exploration of points – and I think you made some good ones. For me, I started to recognize that I was looking for experiences that u could take a picture of and blog about, which was sucking the experience from the experience itself. I think it’s totally fine to do that, but for me, I wanted to live first, and talk about it second, and I’ve tried to tailor my social media usage with that goal in mind.

    • “sucking the experience from the experience itself”

      Priceless quote, Laura! And so true, it is one thing to take a few minutes to set up the shot when you find a great one … and another thing to spend a considerable amount of time just to FIND that shot in the first place. I totally agree that we should want to live first – and that by having those experiences we are in a position to talk about it!

  6. I agree about living in the moment and not seeking out more social media. I feel like a lot of times you think (not you but people in general) by turning off a phone or social media device you are missing out something. You aren’t at all and are missing out on life by being obsessed with the media!

    • Thanks Hollie – it is so true that when you look at things that have accumulated during the hours you were disconnected, most of it wasn’t urgent or important at all ๐Ÿ™‚

  7. Probably adding the same kind of comments from above! All these technologies really do take us out of real life. I find myself now when I come home from work (as I do all my internetting at work) I put my phone on silent and away and then play with my kid until he goes to bed and then I see what I missed. I don’t want the kid to try and vie for my attention when I feel I’m there so little anyways. I hate hate hate when I have clients come in, sit in the chair, and TAKE the phone call they receive, all the while wasting my time. I find this way worse with younger generations and they actually give me a evil eye when I tell them to just put the phone down for just 5 minutes while I do what I need to do.

    • The phone use in retail establishments, at doctor/dentist offices, etc is out of control … and you are right that people get upset when you suggest that if they are too busy with the phone to respect others that they should step out of line.

      Totally hear you on the focus of attention – there is plenty of time for email/web/blog later … our babies are only little once (or in my case 16 and 17 once).

  8. Of course, the first post I read today and start to comment on is the last one that actually gets commented on. Womp.
    Technology is something that I am reliant on for much of the day, but to tell you the truth, I would be able to cease and desist with (smart phone wise especially). Of course, I say that with a grain of salt. I would happily go back to my Nokia 3360. I loved that thing. I would addend a camera for life moments. I love having information at my fingertips, but the times when Alex and I have traveled and had to de-Smartphone we have been fine. I love GPS for navigation, but I also am a firm believer in asking around. There are a great many times I wish I could leave my phone at home and just have my old Nano back. And don’t get me started on kids who can’t entertain themselves and rely on tech. Play I spy dang it!
    So no, you’re not a grumpy grandpa. If you are, I don’t know what I would be termed….

    • haha – well, it took me two days to get to responding so it is all good!

      I actually chatted with some tech-friends about doing a ‘low tech challenge’ and going back to ‘feature phones’ for a month, but two of them got new phones as we were talking about it and the whole thing fell apart … but I looked at how much I use the camera and texting and so on and decided I really didn’t want to go back to the crap cameras in my old phones! ๐Ÿ™‚

      Last night at the high school Pops concert two rows in front of us a kid (at least 10 years old) sat playing games on a phone the whole time … annoying as heck. Of course the father was wearing a hat and never took it off indoors, so … just saying’.


  9. I think our vacation to China was good for us in breaking the cell phone addiction on vacation. We couldn’t get to some of the things we’d normally check, so phones became maps and cameras, and that was about it. And on vacations since then, we’ve tried to do the same (and it helps that we have very poor service where my family lives near the U.P., and where my husband’s extended family lives in Southern Italy). It makes me feel like I’m more in the moment, further away from the work world, and just more content and relaxed. It’s a good new habit.

    But one thing I particularly appreciate about my phone is that in some ways, it helps with my patience. In a waiting room, in line at the post office, in a chair waiting hours to be called for jury duty, sitting at a long traffic light even, being able to feel like I am not wasting my time chills me out. Instead of just waiting, I can be checking email, reading about what friends are doing, looking something up, checking the weather, whatever, it keeps me from being frustrated about wasting time. When I am without phone and stuck passively waiting, I am back to my old impatient habits of tapping my foot, staring at my watch’s second hand, and/or grinding my teeth if I feel like there is anything else I’d rather be doing. I definitely have patience issues, I know…

    • Definitely agree that disconnection can really help you feel more connected to things directly with you!

      Also definitely agree on the waiting in lines, etc – it is an excellent way to pass time. During marching band and school musical season when things seldom end on time I would have my iPad with cellular data with me also ๐Ÿ™‚ But always there is the boundary – too often people fail to appreciate that once they are done with line and actually interacting with someone, THAT person is the thing that deserves priority and attention … otherwise you are being rude to them and to everyone else in line.

  10. As always, I want to write a whole book after reading one of your posts.

    Love the irony of this post. I didn’t see it and am late to the commenting game….because I was out in the woods with no phone or Internet since Friday. Spent the weekend camping at a Cub Scouts event with a strictly enforced embargo on electronics, for parents and kids.

    It was such a fantastic time, built in part on the no-electronics philosophy. Live in the moment. Pay attention to the people and events around you. Rely upon your group and community, not a device.

    One example out of a million: setting up for a space ship derby (balsa wood airplane race) was taking substantially longer than expected. If iPhones were the norm, everybody would check out and emotionally disengage from the event. With no electronic crutches, the Eagle Scouts in attendance led the whole group through songs, skits, stories, anything to keep us all together. For the rest of the weekend, and for future events to come, we can all remember back to the moment and laugh. Real laugh, not lol laugh.

    While I might not remember the exact songs we sang a year from now, I will remember the event and so will the others, the common experience we shared. Do you remember a text you sent, even a day after you sent it? Just like the songs, you might forget the text itself, but you also forget the entire experience of the text conversation you were simultaneously having with 5 people, one of which was sitting right next to you and four of which were somewhere else barely even caring.

    • Love this – and on Saturday night at the high school pops concert there were some technical difficulties, and while we waited one of the kids told a couple of jokes (what is a soprano’s favorite drink? Hi-C ๐Ÿ™‚ ). Again, if you were on Instagram you might see a cute pic … but here you got the kids making the best of an awkward moment and rather than tuning out, we chose to be there with them.

      Great, great comment! We really should always question when our ‘pacifiers’ become problems – whether it is a 5 year old wandering around a crowded mall, a middle schooler playing phone games at a concert, or an adult on Facebook during an end-of-year awards ceremony. All of these happen with such frequency we barely react anymore, and it is sad.

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