When we think of how far we’ve come since the year 2000, it’s easy to focus on what we’ve gained. We’ve gotten iPods, smart phones, driverless cars, text messaging, GPS, social media, Wikipedia, nearly every TV show and movie in human existence available on demand and an AI-based computer that can lick just about anyone at Jeopardy.
At the same time a good many things are going, going, gone! These are things that everybody took for granted in the 20th century but have become almost entirely obsolete today.
In high schools and even colleges, there was a specific room on campus where they kept all the computers. Nobody had their own computer. Back then that was as absurd as saying “I could fly commercial, but I prefer to fly my own plane.” So you went to these rooms and used one of the computers, and then you left and you didn’t have access to a computer again until you went back to that room! Nowadays everyone has their own computer of some size.
The busy signal
It’s really strange the things you miss. Back in the days of landlines, calling somebody and getting a busy signal used to be annoying. But today, in an age of digital phones, we’d be glad to hear a busy signal. Because if you heard one, you had some solid information. The person you were trying to reach was home, just on another call. Going straight to voicemail can mean anything. But that beep-beep-beep was a reason for hope!
Watching crappy daytime TV on sick days
You know why so many people who came of age in the late 20th century have such fond memories of former Price Is Right host Bob Barker? Because when we stayed home sick from school and watched TV all day, we always ended up watching The Price Is Right because it was the only thing on. It was that or some terrible soap opera or the local news. Can you imagine anyone today watching a game show they were vaguely interested in over and over and over because it was the only option?
DVDs arrived in the U.S. in 1997, and it didn’t take long for the new format to make VCRs feel like cave drawings. It looked bad when The Washington Post gave the antiquated technology a tongue-in-cheek obit in 2005 – “It passed away peacefully after a long illness caused by chronic technological insignificance and a lack of director’s commentary tracks” – but when Japanese newspaper Nikkei rang the death knell for VCRs last summer, it was officially over.
Getting film developed
Walking past a “film processing” desk at a pharmacy can be downright creepy. It’s like driving by an abandoned drive-in movie theater. You want to crane your neck just to get a better look, as if maybe you’ll see the ghosts of former customers, picking up their photos and saying, “I can’t believe I got these developed in under 24 hours!” Next time you’re there, take three dozen photos of the film-developing station with your phone, then look at them immediately, just to remind yourself how far we’ve come.
Dot matrix printers
The only places where perforated printouts still reign supreme are at thrift-store “electronics” sections and car rental offices. Even though they were a pain during their prime, especially when they jammed (which was, you know, always), we can’t help but get a little misty-eyed when we hear the purring of a dot matrix in action.
If there’s no picture on your TV in 2017, it just means you didn’t pay your cable bill. But even then, we never get the electromagnetic noise that was so frustrating (and weirdly comforting) for several generations of TV watchers. It seems that younger generations often don’t even have cable because everything is available from streaming services like Netflix and Amazon Prime.
Is it possible that future generations will never know the horrors of sitting through an aunt’s vacation photos in a living room slide projector show that feels like waterboarding torture in which you have to pretend to smile? How is that remotely fair?
When was the last time you actually sent or received a fax? About as close as you get to that today is seeing a fax number on someone’s old business card. Nobody needs a fax machine anymore since everything is done over email.
Polaroid “instant” pictures
Kids today have it so easy. For them, an “instant” picture is any image they capture on their smartphone, and it’s accessible nanoseconds after taking it. But with Polaroids – which ceased making instant film in 2008 – “instant” meant “in a few minutes, after you shake the photo violently for some reason and then wait and wait and wait for what seems like an eternity for the image to slowly appear.” It’s hard to believe that we were ever so patient.
Phones were once connected to walls with fiber optic cables. No, I’m totally not kidding. They worked just like any other phone, except there was no screen, or Internet connection, and it didn’t tell you the time, and it had zero apps.
To connect to the Internet once required a landline phone which you would plug into your computer. Then your computer would attempt to “call” the Internet. Sometimes your connection would get interrupted if somebody in the house picked up another phone, and you’d yell, “Mom! I’m trying to check my email!”
Before every car and cellular phone came with their own global positioning systems, it was entirely possible that you could venture out into the world and not have any idea where you were. It was called “being lost,” and you either had to find somebody to give you directions or find a map. Or maybe you’d just stay lost, and keep wandering until you stumbled onto something familiar, or just figured out where you were going out of dumb luck. Being lost wasn’t so bad, if you can believe it. It was a weird thrill to have no clue when, or even if, you’d arrive at your destination.
CD case binders
There’s a whole lot that feels conspicuously absent now that music has become digitized and is no longer a physical thing. Nobody owns a Walkman or Discman anymore. But the weirdest disappearing act is the CD binder, which you’d fill up with CDs before a car trip or any outdoor excursion, and then invariably realize too late that you forgot the one CD you wanted to hear.
There was a weird thrill to showing up for a first date and having no idea what the other person looked like. No more. Thanks, Tinder.
Kids today not only can’t write in cursive, some of them can’t even read it. Does it matter? Other than signing a check (another thing we have nearly stopped doing), cursive might very well be a lost art. Sure it’s cool, but it’s cool like being able to read Beowulf in the original Old English is cool. It doesn’t have real world applications.
Pre-2000, a cloud was a collection of condensed water vapor hovering in the sky. It’s what made rain, not where you stored all of your computer files. If you wanted to save important documents, you needed something like a floppy disk, which could hold up to 240 MB of memory. But then came the floppy-less iMac in 1998, and eventually the iCloud, which made floppies seem adorably quaint. If you still have dozens of floppy disks, maybe you could repurpose them as plant holders or drink coasters.
Library card catalogs
You know what would be a far more entertaining version of The Hunger Games? A bunch of kids from 2017 compete in a death match where they have to find a book in the library using only the Dewey decimal system. In the end, everybody gets paper cuts and nobody finds their book.