The Joy of the Techless Nineties
Five times teen life was better before smartphones
I was born in the summer of 1979.
In 1985, age six, I saw my first computer. It was beige, gigantic, and wheeled into my classroom on a trolley not dissimilar to the kind hotel porters use for an entire football team's worth of luggage. So rare was the lesser-spotted BBC computer it was chained (literally—and padlocked!) to the trolley, and only certain teachers could turn on this wondrous machine.
It was the dawning of modern tech and we lived in hope that one day we too would hop on hover boards like Marty McFly.
By the time my son was six, he looked set to throw a laptop down the stairs in frustration because no amount of pinching his chubby little fingers against the screen would make his YouTube video bigger. It seemed the kid was born instinctively seeking out a touch screen. The closest I got to anything with a 'magic' screen was an Etch-a-Sketch in the hands of my uncle who had a freakish ability to recreate anything with those tiny dials.
I mean sure, there are plusses to being a teen post year 2000. Who doesn't love being able to hire a movie without queuing in a Blockbuster Video?
But let me tell you, growing up in the techless 90s, (in a rural village in Scotland) can hold its own.
And while we could regale ourselves with dozens of analogue anecdotes, probably the biggest innovation to seamlessly slip into everyday life is the ubiquitous smartphone.
So in reverse order, here you have it, my 'Five times teen life was better before smartphones...'
5—There was no comparison thief to steal your joy
The 90s were the golden era for storytellers. With satellite TV we were exposed to such classics as Beverly Hills 90210 and classic prime time shows like Wish You Were Here. It would only take committing to a few Saturday nights studying Jason Priestly and Shannon Docherty, and a passing hint of Wogan and you could persuade half your class you had been to LA in the summer holidays. I mean, given that the previous 12 summers has been spent on the freezing beaches of Ardrossan or in the Costa Del Aberdeen, it would have been a wild assertion, but the onus is on the opposition to disprove your claim. And guess what—no such technology existed that could record, picture, or geo-tag your every move.
Similarly, you would spend the entire three weeks of your Christmas break (even the holidays were better in the 90s!) in blissful ignorance, engrossed in listening to mix tapes on your brand new red and black walkman. You had no idea whether Donna got the much-sought after NafNaf jacket that your mother refused to even consider, or if Jim was eating Marks and Spencer roast potatoes as you made secret vows to God in return for a rapture of Brussel sprouts. Even toward the end of the decade when GameBoys were introduced to the world, it wasn't rubbed in your face that your best mate had become addicted to Tetris while you were beating your dad at Connect Four. Simply put, it was still possible to be content with your little or your lot without a device in your pocket doubling as a magic mirror into the lives of others.
4—delayed gratification (or, having to wait for photos)
In a box under my bed, even now, you'll find the following:
a birthday card from my late grandfather, one of those plastic credit-card-sized things bearing soppy words from Hallmark, my old school tie, pre-Euro German currency, and approximately 497 photographs.
The day we skipped school to go to a Bon Jovi concert, Wimbledon Men's Final 1998, various baby snaps, cut-up pics referenced under 'post ugly break-up', my graduation, first couple shot of me and my now husband, my best friend snogging the school pin-up, a missions trip to Romania, and me dressed as Geri from the Spice Girls. All tucked away in sacred Kodak folders, for posterity.
But even better than having the photos, or even having the experience where the photographs were taken, was the rite of passage that is the photo procurement process.
First thing to note: Not everyone had a camera. Yep, you heard me right, the ability to capture every living second of your life, including arty shots of your dinner, had not yet become a thing. In fact, you could instantly elevate a seemingly ordinary gathering simply by producing a camera. And if you missed the ceremonial revealing of the camera you were in no doubt that you had somehow become part of a momentous night when you heard the unmistakeable clunk, followed by click, click, click, click, click as the thumb of a budding Annie Leibovitz rolled the dial to make way for the next picture.
Next thing to note: Unless you owned a Polaroid Camera (not yet retro cool again) there was no such thing as an instant photo. You would have to wait a month between lining up in the gym hall to being given (and then hiding) the images so your mum didn't know you ditched your blazer in favour of a purple shell suit jacket every day on the way to the bus.
Both of these things combine to ensure that the glossy sheets of paper brandishing bad permed hair and spotty chins of our teenage years remained a 'most wanted' item.
I even included the post-holiday trip to Boots the Chemist as part of my budget. In my younger years I would part with an entire fiver in return for 24 standard size pictures—ready in a week. By the time I was earning, perhaps the greatest step-up I was afforded, was the ability to check the '24 hour' box at the photo counter.
Now don't get me wrong, I see the value and understand the joy in having a gadget on me at all times which can capture the un-planned. I love it. But just like getting an old fashioned letter from a friend arrive on your doormat, there was something so precious about having to wait to reminisce over your holiday. It was an event in itself when everyone collected their pics then got together to laugh—and cry—over them.
And without photoshop, 10 million apps and contouring, there was plenty to laugh about.
Hair sprayed fringes. I'll leave it there.
3—Wait - I know that number...
I grew up in a village. Not only did everyone know each other, but if you wanted any semblance of privacy, pre-smartphones, you also needed to know the number of the local phone box.
This was for two reasons. Firstly, even if you had a house phone it was usually located in one of two places: the living room or parents' bedroom. Debating whether Rick Astley or Joey from New Kids is better looking is really not the type of conversation welcome while your dad watches A Question of Sport. Also not welcome when you're a teenage girl, is any male phoning your house and anyone but yourself answering the call. Hence the phone box.
Second reason for memorising the phone box number is to convey an air of ownership. No-one's going to believe it's your phone if you can only read out the digits when the street lights come on. And persuading people it's a house number was important. If the people you're trying to convince own the local pizza shop that is, and you and your mates have clubbed together enough cash for a large Margarita to be delivered to the address of the nearest house to the swings in the public park.
I mean, it's definitely easier being a teen in possession of a smartphone, but I won't be convinced it's better.
I had two choices of phonebox, growing up. One was about a quarter of a mile away, and was more of a phone 'point' than a box. Living in Scotland, on what was basically a mini mountain, meant I favoured anything that offered shelter. Phone box two, though much further away, came with the luxury of a shelf (once home to a Yellow Pages) where you could sit, and four walls and a roof. A veritable annexe by which to conduct important conversations. Its number was committed to memory.
If you were awaiting a call to the box, it was a win win whether they called or stood you up. If they called, you had 20 minutes of walking to contain the giggling hype that ensued. If they didn't, you had the best part of half an hour to hide your tears or come up with a plausible story for why you went a walk to the shop but came back with nothing.
If you were the one making the call the journey to the box was crucial. It was a kind of Rocky-in-training sequence, psyching yourself up to dial the number and bravely ask to speak to some boy from your class. Of course, it often acted as a much-needed (and obviously missing these days) filter too. By the time you had paced the streets, twiddling your gold t-bar chain or playing with your scrunchie for 20 minutes, common sense could have set in. And crucially—if you did dial, and then immediately wished you hadn't, there was no way to screengrab anything, or to mis-read a text, or even risk them calling back. It was the phone box after all. A definite rite of passage.
It's only recently that I've come to the conclusion that since my first purchase of a mobile phone, and the subsequent upgrade to what is essentially a mini computer, I've never been more than a second away from breaking news. As a journalist that's been important to me, but as a teenager it was just as important to NOT be quite so connected.
I watched the Berlin Wall fall, for example, surrounded by people. We witnessed as a community, and so responded as a community, to something monumental happening. It didn't stop at a bleep in my pocket and a pop up that takes the same form as a Netflix notification.
But it also meant when we were camping in a field or secretly turning the clocks back so we could trick our parents into giving us an extra hour out, that we were without the realms of communication if we got found out. That sweet but daring brush with adulthood has been confined to history now that I can track my kids down with the aid of an app and my bloodhound-like determination.
I'm not going to pretend I don't love the access I have to my offspring via modern technology as a parent, but as an adult reflecting on my life as a teen I am incredibly grateful that I wasn't at the end of a smartphone.
I was bullied for years throughout secondary school. Sometimes it was physical, and other times it was emotional abuse. I cannot imagine what levels this would have gone to if social media had been a thing then. Thriving on gossip and lies, I'm sure I would have been a target that could never escape being hunted, had tech been widely available.
I'm also someone who is highly empathetic and incredibly thin skinned. It doesn't bode well for my mental health if I have access to a 24 hour stream of information or a platform to be judged or criticised. And it cannot be good for any malleable grey matter to be exposed to the graphic content so easily found courtesy of 'essential' phones.
As a parent of a teen now, a smartphone gets a tick for child-stalking purposes, but it gets a massive thumbs down for infiltrating the lives of my children with imagery, content and negativity—that may all be 'real'— but certainly aren't helpful.
Take me back to the 90s where the closest we got to adult content was a five minute slot of Eurotrash before your mum scrambled to turn it over because you could only watch it in the living room. Once upon a time not everyone had a mini-tv in their pockets.
1—Living the legend
By far the greatest reason why being a teenager pre-smartphone was infinitely better than pubescence now with one, is that we were able to make mistakes, test the boundaries, have adventures, break hearts, have our hearts broken, and wear some of the most god-awful fashion ever to grace the earth UNDOCUMENTED.
That's right, you heard me folks, there is no documented evidence (other than a few kodak folders under a bed—and a lifetime of memories) of most of the ridiculous things we did.
When my prospective employer Googles my name he won't find photos of wild house parties, bad haircuts, questionable relationship choices and bad purchases. Not because they didn't happen, but because social media didn't file it away like ugly baby pictures.
Anyone else do the old "I'm staying at Shirley's?" While Shirley was supposedly staying at yours? I certainly did. In fact, so elaborate was the web of deceit once woven by my entire class at school, that when the dad of one girl came home early from a weekend away, 17 of us had nowhere to go lest our lies would be revealed. In the end we slept in a field—but not before watching the Chinese Take-Away driver try and find us in the pitch dark following a very convincing call from the phone box.
That, my friend, is now but a legend. There won't be a pop-up saying "on this day, 23 years ago, you acted like a muppet."
No bad hair-dye snaps. (Purple hair for a Prodigy concert that wouldn't wash out for school the next day).
No regretful perms. (Think Leo Sayer, electrified, wearing a school uniform).
No fashion disasters. (Take your pick... the grunge era (green army coat, vintage shirt, DMs), the clubbing phase (gaudy satin shirt, short skirt, sandals), the 'I'm a trainee reporter... (raincoat, notebook, glasses that I didn't need!).)
No teenage opinions—that changed 83 times that year alone—defining us for ever.
So if you ever had to look up numbers in a phone book, if you remember only having five TV channels, if you recall driving with a map on your knee because sat-nav wasn't a thing, then you, my friend are one of the lucky ones!