My memories of what life was like before the Internet

Tuesday, April 2nd, 2024

Two men on an early buggy car busting through a blue world map.

[Benj’s note — I originally wrote this in 2020 and had it sitting around until now. I still think it might be useful to someone in the future, so I decided to publish it.]

Many Americans alive today witnessed one of the most dramatic cultural transitions since the invention of the printing press: The rise of the consumer Internet, beginning around 1994. For everyone else, life before the Internet may seem like a distant, foggy past. To help future generations understand what happened, here’s what life was like back then, mostly based on my personal recollections as someone born in 1981.

The Internet first made its way to the world as the ARPAnet (1969), a computer network that linked universities and government institutions. The network grew quickly in size and capability, and soon, it opened up to private companies and individuals. Not long after becoming publicly known as the Internet, this global network first made a big splash in the mainstream American press. Around 1995, commercial ISPs began springing up overnight, and soon America was rushing to get connected.

As a result of easy and inexpensive Internet access in homes and businesses (and now in our pockets), many aspects of our society have changed, and I’m going to go over some of them below.

This is a broad generalization

Everything you’re about to read is a generalization. Individual experiences before the Internet differed greatly depending on your location, age, and socioeconomic status.

In fact, experiences varied year-by-year as culture and technology shifted. And obviously, life before the Internet spans back into prehistory. So to simplify things, I’ll be talking about life from the point of view of a middle-class American family in the years before the Internet hit it big—roughly the 1970s to the early 1990s.

I was born in 1981 in Raleigh, North Carolina, USA, and raised there in what might be described as an upper-middle-class white suburban family with a technologically literate father (who was an electronics engineer) and access to varied computer platforms and telecommunications from an early age.

I still think this summary of differences might be useful to people in the future since it is coming from the perspective of a veteran tech historian who has spent nearly two decades writing about these topics.

So first, a very big disclaimer: Your Memories Will Vary.

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