I miss the olden days. Don’t get me wrong; I don’t miss black-lunged street urchins scurrying up narrow, carcinogenic chimneys. Nor do I miss the days of young cotton mill workers getting a vicious strapping for having the gall to complain about exhaustion and a degloved finger. No, I’m talking about a mere 25 years ago, which genuinely feels like the olden days.
As 1992 dawned, I was relatively fresh out of school and working in a low paid Civil Service job as a custodian of training materials for the new Disability Living Allowance. In the aborted screenplay of my life, a typical day would play out as follows:
INT. SMALL STOREROOM. DAY
Andy unpacks some workbooks from a cardboard box and places them into a pigeonhole. The phone rings. He dashes over to his desk and answers it.
Hi Andy. We haven’t got any OHP acetates for Module 206.
Andy checks the handwritten list of modules and materials sellotaped to the wall behind him, illuminated by a shaft of moted sunlight penetrating the gloom through the room’s only window.
Don’t worry, John. There are no acetates for Module 206.
Andy hangs up the phone and continues to unpack boxes.
At the time, I didn’t like 1992 very much. In fact, I sporadically wrote a diary documenting my dreary days in a dead-end job. I was 17 years old, crimped my hair, and wore baggy black cardigans because I wanted to be Robert Smith. But instead, I was working in a storeroom at the arse-end of an annexe building and every day just dragged.
However, when comparing those days to what we have now, I realise how amazing they were. That tiny storeroom was an oasis of solitude, where the intense patter from the nearby typing pool – a sort of Final Score teleprinter tinnitus – was the only reminder that I wasn’t completely alone in the building. But most importantly, I occupied that room in a time before we were digitally connected to everything.
When I feel overwhelmed by the unrelenting news cycle and general information overload of 21st-century life, my mind leaps to that blissfully disconnected little world with its gunmetal grey shelving. No mobile or smartphone, no apps or social media, no computer (no Google), no wall-mounted TV with rolling news – nothing. Just my thoughts and a notebook, in which I would scribble wry observations for my diary and scraps of lyrics for songs I would never write.
Even when I got a new job and moved from the storeroom to one of the large office buildings on site, I was still largely disconnected from the wider world during the day. Even though I had a computer, it only ran software for data input and record retrieval. It was all blinking block cursors and compulsory data fields. Work distractions didn’t come in the form of Twitter, Facebook or multiple visits to Instagram; they came in the form of a twice-daily tea trolley, where you could queue for anything up to half an hour for a Mars bar. Other distractions were quite unexpected, like when George – a sexagenarian who worked across the office from me – suffered a stroke at his desk. Sometimes I would head off on an odyssey to find a toilet I’d never used before, which often took me through mirror image offices and mysterious departments on other floors. It was like travelling through alternate universes; everything was the same but different. Some days, it felt like I wandered for miles.
1992 was also the year I spent about two weeks writing Christmas cards for my colleagues. But instead of writing traditional festive messages, my cards contained original poetry and ‘deep’, thought-provoking short prose. Free from the bullshit distractions of the 21st century the early 90s enabled me to be a really pretentious cunt – and I embraced it!
Looking back, it was such a wonderful period. I went on holiday with some mates in 1993, and we didn’t bother to share our experiences with anyone when we got back. The memories were ours to keep. Imagine that! Over the course of one week in the Lake District, I took approximately six photos – and two of those were snapped when I was dropping my friends back home (mainly because I wanted to grab a shot of my new Peugeot 205). Today, people take around 60 photos in the fucking airport departure lounge. Oh, to return to the days when we didn’t have to experience the full digital presentation of someone’s family holiday.
1992 wasn’t all good, mind. After all, Jim Davidson and Bobby Davro were on prime time TV. But it was a time when you could muddle through each day without stumbling across a single fragment of news or hint of what was going on in the world. And unlike today, when you can’t skim read your Twitter timeline for more than a couple of minutes without bumping into a racist shithouse, you would have to be catering the National Front’s summer BBQ to be exposed to similar backward world views in 1992. It wasn’t as easy to come across. But maybe I wasn’t paying attention.
At the time, I didn’t really have any knowledge of what was happening in the news. I wasn’t particularly interested in current affairs, and there were only four regular news bulletins on TV throughout the day anyway. The only things I vaguely remember were images of emaciated internees at a Serbian detention camp and tabloid front pages of Sarah Ferguson’s toe-sucking antics with John Bryan. And mercifully, I didn’t have the slightest clue what President George H.W. Bush was doing from minute to minute – unlike today, when President Donald Trump keeps us all in the loop, via Twitter, about whether a nuclear conflagration is going to piss over our day.
What I wouldn’t do to return to the blissful days of 1992. Life was much simpler without the Internet, without so much sharing, without having to know everything.
Evan Williams – a Twitter founder and co-creator of Blogger – recently said that the Internet is broken. He said:
People are using Facebook to showcase suicides, beatings and murder, in real time. Twitter is a hive of trolling and abuse that it seems unable to stop. Fake news, whether created for ideology or profit, runs rampant. Four out of 10 adult internet users said in a Pew survey that they had been harassed online. And that was before the [US] presidential campaign heated up last year.
I thought once everybody could speak freely and exchange information and ideas, the world is automatically going to be a better place. I was wrong about that.
I think Williams is looking to fix things. But why bother? Why not just shut it all down?
There’s a great scene at the end of Escape from L.A., when Snake Plissken, played by Kurt Russell, clicks the remote control to activate the ‘Sword of Damocles’ superweapon – a constellation of satellites that can kill every electronic device on the planet. In an instant, the earth is plunged into darkness, and humankind has to start over. Maybe that’s what we need to do with the Internet: pull the plug and start afresh? Let’s just admit that the experiment – as fun as it’s been (at times) – has failed. Could we all disconnect and live our lives offline again? Or are we too intoxicated with the power we have at our fingertips?
I mean, look where it’s taken us.