The internet went down in the office this morning, and it immediately left me feeling powerless. I couldn’t send or receive work emails, I couldn’t pay anyone, and when running a payroll I couldn’t submit a P45 or P46 form online to HMRC. But I figured out the most important loss when one of my colleagues asked a question that none of us knew the answer to. It was something about a band we were listening to on the radio at the time. Under normal circumstances, after debating possible answers for a minute or two, we’d be leaping on the “Quick! To Wikipedia!” train to find out the truth. With no internet access, though, we couldn’t, and so the question remained unanswered.
It was a very strange outcome, something that I wasn’t used to, and it got me thinking about how we ran our lives before the internet, mobile phones and the other technological wonders we’ve come to rely on existed. How could we find out the answer to an obscure question that no one around us was an expert on? Go to the library? Sit there frustrated for a minute and then be forced to forget about it? The idea of not having instant access to the sum of the world’s knowledge is alien these days.
And what about something as simple as arranging to meet up for a drink? In 2010 we phone or text a friend’s mobile, or send a message over Facebook or Twitter, but back when I was a teenager it was a potential minefield. Organising anything involved ringing a home phone and hoping that the friend was in. If he wasn’t, you were screwed. If the event was time-limited, there was literally nothing you could do except hope against hope that someone else in the friend’s house would know where he was, and that you would have that place’s number. Nowadays, it’s ludicrous to think that someone has to be in a fixed place to be contactable. My wife’s parents sometimes leave their mobile phone off when they’re away, and it’s baffling not to be able to get hold of them.
Back to the drinks thing, though, in the mid-90s you’d toddle off down the pub to meet your friend. But wait… what if you were running late? What if your bus didn’t turn up? What if his mum didn’t come home at the right time to give him a lift? Nowadays one of you would fire off a quick text message to give a new ETA, but back in the day I remember many evenings where I’d be running around like a headless chicken trying to get somewhere before a friend gave up and left, or conversely I’d be sitting in a pub with a drink, sipping it really slowly, wondering where the bloody hell the person I was meeting was.
Driving anywhere new was a real adventure. It was out with the road atlas, and while that sufficed for getting to the relevant town or city, once inside you’d often be reduced to stopping at a petrol station to buy an A-Z. How else would you find your way to a house without asking directions? If you were very lucky you’d receive detailed instructions beforehand from the friend you were going to see, but otherwise you were on the first train to Buggeredville. Often you’d be forced to arrange to meet at an unmissable landmark. Nowadays, of course, you’d just go onto Multimap and print out a map and exact directions (and even that’s becoming old hat now), or even more conveniently, type the destination postcode into a SatNav. Hell, the last couple of iPhone models can do GPS, and there are loads of SatNav apps available.
There are many more examples of how things were without the technology we now take for granted. Having to pay for things with cash. Cursing when places didn’t take Solo. Only being able to shop on the High Street. Hell, having to pluck up the courage to ask a girl out – I tell you what, if Facebook and mobiles were around when I was a teenager, the whole relationships thing would have been a million times easier.
Now I have a whole music library in my pocket. I can download any movie, TV show or album that I want, when I want. I can cut out the High Street and order online with impunity. I can miss a show completely and then watch it later on iPlayer. I can contact all my friends at once. I can be sat in a cinema and Tweet about how long the bloody adverts are taking. I can be late for something and text the person I’m meeting to tell them. I can go on the internet and look up the most obscure facts imaginable. I can write this blog post and seconds later the entire world can read it. Even if only a few people actually do.
It’s obvious from these cursory thoughts alone that the internet and technology in general have made our lives so much easier in a very short space of time. Convenience and convergence are maybe the greatest advancements of the 21st century so far. But it was interesting this morning to not know an answer and have no way of finding it. How did we ever put up with this? And could we ever go back?