I was thinking the other day (I do, occasionally) as I set aside a little time for social networking. The world has changed dramatically in my lifetime. And no, I’m not anywhere near ‘geriatric.’ Mature, perhaps, but I still have full control of my faculties. I can very clearly remember all the ‘firsts’ I’ve seen. TV, cell phones, fax machines, concorde, the first lunar landing (conspiracy theories ignored), and the first heart transplant, among many others. And of course, Google and the Internet.
It’s hard to imagine now that once, Google and the Internet were the exclusive playground of the weird and geeky, intellectual techie types. They inhabited the cyber universe as a kind of parallel universe from which the uninitiated were excluded. We’ve come a long way. Nowadays, the average person can open the door to unlimited information in less than a second. Psychologists are working groundbreaking research into cyber-stalking, cyber-bullying, cyber-emotional-displacement, etc. Marketing has become an almost alien beast which must be fed. Billions are poured into the development of software, platforms, APIs, training, and branding strategies. These change overnight because the beast keeps morphing at the speed of light.
Most of us manage to just keep up. Barely. The up-side, of course, is wider reach, greater ease of research (I’m a writer, this is a serious bonus), the ability to communicate instantly with loved ones across the globe… All of these are good, so we make the effort to keep up.
So there I was, cross-posting and sharing and finding what my friends were sharing. Then I had a flashback to Life Before Google. And yes, I did have one. A good one, too, though I freely confess that the current innovations are quite fabulous. But I realized that there is a lot to be said for that ‘other life’ too. There are things I miss. Though in the context of innovation and practicality, it’s nostalgia rather than wanting to press rewind. Some things stand out. Things that the very young will never experience, which the not-so-very-young will perhaps remember.
I have some fun recollections of life before Google.
Life back then was, in many ways, relatively simple. Most of it focused around the library, either school or public, depending on where you were. Our public library in Pietermaritzburg was fondly referred to as the muggery. This was due to the public parking and taxi rank beside it. There, all kinds of ‘interesting’ characters would lurk, clutching unidentifiable bottles sheathed in grubby brown paper bags. The smell of dagga (marijuana) was pervasive, along with cheap tobacco and a host of other smells better left unmentioned. Youths, drunks, and loiterers of every shape and description hung out there. Though in all honesty, no one I know ever came to any harm. It simply ‘was’ and we were used to it. The discomfort gauntlet was inconsequential once you made it through the hallowed doors.
Librarians were remarkable people, somewhere ‘up there’ on the ‘someone’ scale. They either knew all the answers or knew how to find them. Library catalogue cards were a treasure trove (once you mastered the art of how to navigate them). The silence and the warm, fuzzy, totally-beyond-delight smell of real books remains embedded in my psyche. It was a haven, a place of peace and tranquility and grand adventure, the doorway to any realm of your choosing. And, of course, the only place to find what you needed for that pesky project…
The next Google predecessor, of course, was the encyclopaedia. We had the full set of World Books growing up, with the edges gold-tinted and the covers kept pristine-clean (We Had Rules) but what a delight. The world had opened up and come home to live with us. It didn’t seem possible that anything could eclipse the oh-so-real sense of having the knowledge of the total universe at your fingertips. How strange to think that today, that set of encyclopaedias might well be classified a collector’s item.
Of course, if libraries or encyclopaedias were not at hand, or if one needed more relevant information – like which song did Queen/The Doors/Neil Diamond/Any-One-Else-Currently-Famous/Popular perform to open that particular concert – one resorted to the tried and tested method of…people.
We communicated. Via face-to-face or telephone. We asked around – parents, siblings, friends, teachers, and whoever might know. And somehow, we found the answers. And had any number of interesting chats and discussions as we rambled through various divergent topics and memories to finally get to Rome. I often wonder if our memory-retention skills have altered now that we no longer have to actually remember things. We encounter so much ‘stuff,’ so many facts and possiblities and knowledge. But we don’t have to remember it all because we can find it again in no time at all. On Google. Instead of ‘asking a friend’ we ‘ask Fred Google’ (frightfully ridiculous electronic device, depending on your mood). And we’re on our way in literally seconds.
Communication before Google was very different.
‘Real English’ was an ingrained thing. We used real words and real sentences and real grammar. Not abbreviations, acronyms and text shortcuts. We learned to spell, and to put commas in the right place, and the joy of the beauty of words strung together to create vivid realities still lives with me today. Okay, I’m an author and editor, so this is my particular little idiosyncracy and I have no intention of letting it go.
We listened to serial stories on the radio, wrote letters (the kind you actually had to put a stamp on) and waited in excitement for the reply. Pen-pals have now been replaced by ‘friends’ or ‘connections’ or followers,. Back then, all things ‘viral’ were to be avoided at all costs. Anyone ‘engineering’ a global viral campaign would have been arrested for terrorism or as a danger to the nation. In those days, ‘google’ was a slightly off-colour activity. Like ‘ogling’ or ‘staring with lascivious intent’ or just plain being nosy.
I do enjoy – and wouldn’t change – the incredible advantages of the cyber age. But there are things that occasionally ‘feel absent’ and which did add value to our lives. Yes, we did have a Life Before Google. I love the one I have now, but every now and then, it’s good to remember that there were other ways that worked. We can put on the ‘old’ music and indulge a little nostalgia. I remind myself that, after all, I’m one of the ‘exceptional people’ – those who actually managed to grow up, get a solid university education, and raise children without Google.