Life before mobile phones


These are questions that somehow make you feel old (and I’m not yet 40) — on Quora, someone asked: What was daily life like before almost everyone had cell phones?

If you know me enough, it won’t surprise you that I kind of miss that era. Again, it’s not a matter of vague nostalgia or being opposed to technology. But as I mentioned in my piece Telephone box, what I don’t like about the ubiquity of mobile phones and devices are certain consequences that this technological progress has brought to society. As I wrote, mobile phones and smartphones are a fantastic invention, but have also spawned a series of bad, annoying habits people display in public, mindlessly and disrespectfully.

Tom Coates, one of the people who answered on Quora, wrote:

You’ll see some people on here who will tell you that ‘life was simpler’, but the truth is, it was a pain — we just didn’t realize it at the time. […] Genuinely, the mobile phone is a huge improvement in most people’s lives, and those people who declare it to be a problem or lament the past are, frankly, living in a weird nostalgic bubble.

I don’t recall life being ‘simpler’, just organised differently. I don’t recall having particular difficulty staying in touch with friends or organising meetings and outings. Good friends usually knew one another’s habits, so it wasn’t that hard finding them at home to chat or planning a meeting for later or the day after. I don’t know if the world was a better place when only landline telephony existed, but streets and public places were quieter, people were generally more polite, and, as another person who replied on Quora pointed out, more aware of one another and their surroundings. I would gladly trade the convenience of reaching everyone (and be reached) at any moment to have these other things back.

People who have never really lived in a world without mobile phones, after reading these answers on Quora, might think that daily life at that time was unnecessarily complicated and ‘harder’. Organising meetings, finding people, finding places around you, having to use paper maps instead of having a portable device with GPS functionalities built in, not being able to look things up in Google or Wikipedia at any time. The truth is, people knew how to organise themselves with the tools they had available. Daily life had a completely different pace and style, built around the tools available at that time. It really isn’t a matter of ‘worse’ or ‘better’ — life was just different. People were equally able to organise their meetings, to communicate with one another, to go to places never before visited by using a map or tourist guide, to search for information at public libraries, and so on and so forth.

On a more personal level, the impact of mobile phones and the Internet in my life has been huge, and they’ve both brought many positive things and developments. They have truly made the world smaller, since I can now instantly reach friends and acquaintances living in the United Kingdom, in the USA or Canada without hassles and without spending a fortune simply by writing a text message, an email, or even by starting a FaceTime call. Yet this ubiquity of mobile phones and devices, all this constant exchange of micro-information (Twitter and other status-based services, social networks, etc.), have progressively made me more allergic to actually using the phone to talk with people, while I remember back in the late Eighties-early Nineties that I used to talk on the phone for hours. So, on one hand I love how we can connect today; on the other hand I miss certain aspects of how that pre-mobile-phone life made us connect with one another. I feel that those connections were somewhat deeper than what we have now.

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