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edge staff writer


Tech sadly? ‘100 Things We've Lost to the Internet’

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The ubiquity of the internet. It is part of our everyday lives, like it or not. Over the past quarter-century, the online explosion has radically altered the world and the way we move through it.

For many of you, that has always been the world. If you were born anytime after 1990 or so, you likely have no memories of a world without the internet. Sure, you might recall the frustrating early days of dial-up modems and slow-loading websites, a time when your entire afternoon might be spent downloading a single song. But the internet is and has always been omnipresent.

However, those of us who are older have clear and distinct memories of a different time and place. A time and place where the internet felt more like science fiction than simple reality. We’ve said good-bye to a lot of things from those bygone days – some of them minor, some incredibly significant – but the one factor they all have in common is that they don’t appear to be coming back.

Thus we get “100 Things We've Lost to the Internet” (Crown, $27). Pamela Paul, editor of The New York Times Book Review, offers up a collection of snapshots from the before times, quick-hit glimpses at a vast array of items and experiences that are simply … gone. They exist only in old photographs (remember those?) or increasingly dusty memories. These habits and learned behaviors, these compulsions and desires – vanished, never to be experienced by those who came after.

These short essays explore the vast array of alterations wrought by the internet, all of them presented with a combination of wistfulness and self-effacing humor. Because here’s the thing – while we might miss a lot of this stuff, we also have to concede that in a lot of ways, we’re better off … even if we perhaps don’t want to admit it. And some of it? Well … some of it we sure would like to have back.

From the very first entry – titled “Boredom” and reflective of the dichotomous nature of this conversation – we hit the ground running. On its face, it seems odd to bemoan the dearth of boredom – who wants to be bored? But as so many people are learning, that absence of boredom – having the breadth of the internet at one’s fingertips at all times – precludes the imaginative outbursts that boredom prompts. When there’s no need to figure out something to do, we instead … do nothing, idly scrolling our way through the hours. You might not like being bored, but in some ways, you kind of need to be every once in a while.

A lot of these entries might read as minor, but others are reflective of broader changes. Number 20, for instance, is “The Phone in the Kitchen.” In an age of smartphones, precious few even have a landline anymore. But if you were a teenager back then – as I was – then that phone was a central cog in your social life. We’ve got entries on handwritten letters and penmanship and spelling – all dinosaurs in their way.

As a longtime accumulator of random knowledge, certain entries – “Being the Only One,” “Figuring Out Who That Actor Is” – hit me where I live; remembering trivia is no longer nearly as impressive when everyone has the capability to find the answer in seconds.

On and on the list goes, with every minor shift adding to the pile. What “100 Things We’ve Lost to the Internet” does so well is illustrate the growth of that pile; while any individual item might be no big deal, the collected set is significant. It’s a list of ways in which the world now is different from the world then – no small thing when dealing with a culture as susceptible to nostalgia as our own.

Obviously, Paul isn’t saying that everything back then was better. Time marches on, after all, and it’s tough to argue against the many benefits that the internet has brought into our lives. But that isn’t really the point. It’s not about whether it used to be better, it’s that it used to be different. And so much of who we are is shaped by the experiences of our formative years; what does it mean when the shape taken by those years is so drastically different from one generation to the next?

“100 Things We've Lost to the Internet” is a fun read for those of us who share some of Paul’s memories and experiences. We remember what it was like and we like to remember. The landscape has shifted, and no doubt it will shift again as technology’s exponential advancement continues on apace. This book serves as a reminder of the simple truth that when gains are made, sometimes something is lost.

Last modified on Wednesday, 03 November 2021 09:45


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