Whatever did we do before the internet? How did we manage before Google?
I’m hearing these questions more often these days, usually after someone’s discovered some snippet of astonishing information in just a few seconds. The questions are rhetorical of course, but it occurs to me that one day people might really want to know. I’m conscious of being a member of the last generation to remember life before the internet, so I want to explain what it was like. How did we manage without Google at our fingertips?
The short answer: we interacted with other human beings.
Yes, strange as it may seem to you iPhone-wielding teens, that’s what we old-timers used to do. We looked at our hands and, finding in them no gadget providing instant access to the world’s store of information, we looked up and out into the world instead, and began the long, laborious and sometimes futile process of searching out the knowledge for ourselves.
In the old days, if I wanted to know the lyrics to The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonite, I’d call my friend Dave who was an avid R.E.M. fan and we’d have a half-hour argument about whether Michael Stipe was saying “Tell me are you locked in the punch” or “Tell me are you locked in the bar” and I’d go to the music store and ask the guy there who knew every song, and it would go on from there until I either found out or gave up looking.
Depending on the information I was looking for, there was always the library, or an encyclopaedia. Sometimes I’d even go through the Yellow Pages and call companies asking for information. But frequently it was about deciding who among my family, friends and acquaintances might know, or know someone who knew, and following the trail from person to person as we now surf from site to site.
Memory and giving up
Another place I looked was in my own mind. Being unable back then to outsource my memory to Google, I devoted more energy to memorising things, and it was more likely that I’d find a fact or figure in there.
If I couldn’t find the information in my memory, or in a book, and if nobody else knew, then here’s what I’d do: I’d shrug my shoulders, and accept the state of not-knowing. It really wasn’t that bad. Usually I’d come across the information I was looking for in the end, coming across it by chance in a newspaper article or an overheard conversation on a train. If I didn’t, I had to think about how to live life without that piece of information. There was usually a way.
Which is better?
You’ll have detected a note of nostalgia in my post, I’m sure. Surely I’m not really saying that I’d like to go back to those days when information was so hard to find?
Well, it’s a bit like asking whether travelling to Timbuktu is better or worse now that there’s an airport and you don’t have to bump across the desert for days on the back of a camel. The answer, to me, is that it’s better and it’s worse. It’s great that Timbuktu is more accessible, but the experience of seeing it rise up out of the desert as if by magic has been lost. Even those who still choose to go there by camel will be conscious of the fact that there’s a much easier way and feel a bit ridiculous about it. The mystique of the place was so great that for many (pre-internet) years I didn’t even know it existed in the real world – to me it just meant “the most distant place in the world”.
Typing a keyword in Google and getting an answer spat out at me in 0.37 seconds is infinitely better in every practical sense than those long winding conversations with Dave. But in some other sense, I feel that something has been lost. In the ease of discovery we lose some of the pleasure of discovery. The world is less mysterious now, and to me that’s both a good thing and a thing to be mourned.