The 90s were better. They just were. I’m sorry, but it’s science. It was the past, but there were vaccines and Jim Crow was over and there was a modern sensibility without all of the pathologies of the internet. Bill Clinton sucked and our government was doing all kinds of awful skulduggery in the world, but he didn’t suck in the same way as George W. Bush and there wasn’t this constant sense of the world falling apart. There was optimism about the coming of the new millennium before we found out what a rotten time the next couple decades would be. I graduated from high school in 1999; we were constantly told that we would become adults in a brand new world, what a blessing it was to be 18 when the calendar flipped to 2000. What they didn’t tell us was that the new era would start with a spasm of nationalism and empire and that our culture would climb deeply into the prurient and grotesque, a world of frosted tips and reality television, and after that all of culture would be swallowed up by new devices that became intermediaries between us and the basic stuff of human life.
I always frame this feeling as "I miss when the internet was a place we visited, not a place we inhabited."
I have nothing but fondness for the 90s. Back in '95, I was a divorced American living in the States and AOL was the only internet game in town. I entered a language chat room to practice my German and a nice person helped me out. Turned out he had a great sense of humour and he was (surprise, surprise) German. We exchanged emails, private chats on AOL messenger, and even texted each other per pager. We finally exchanged photos per snail mail. Telephone calls ensued. Then, much to the horror of my family, I visited him in Germany. We met, fell in love, and were married for 22 wonderful years until he died at age 54 and now I live alone in Germany. I will be forever thankful to the Internet for introducing me to my German, salsa-dancing mathematician husband.
The last line is it. This is my grand unifying theory of why everything is "worse" now. No doubt it actually is, in some ways, but stuff has always sucked, for some people, all of the time, and on the whole it sucks less for everyone now, but we feel worse.
Simply, we have too much information. We're not supposed to know this much. We're not supposed to talk to this many people. I'm not supposed to sit in my underwear and write a few disembodied sentences to thousands of faceless strangers whom I hope agree with me. The 90s, during which I was a child, but sentient enough, seem, as you say, like the right balance of progress and technology without too much information.
We're not meant to drive cars. Our brains haven't evolved to work that fast. And we're not meant to be on the internet. Our brains haven't evolved to know that much.
It's hard for me to separate nostalgia from a cold-hearted assessment of the present age. But for me, the thing I hate the most about the present time is the hyper-politicization of every goddamn thing under the sun. Why does every single opinion or speech act or piece of art have to be coded left or right now? It's the height of dumbassery.
I agree with pretty much everything Freddie has written here and I cannot stress how so much of this is still available to anyone who wants it if they just do two things: (a) Get rid of your smartphone, and (b) get off social media. I've done both and it's fantastic. I'll never, ever go back to either. As the old AOL CDs used to say: Try it for a week!
“I’ll be at Place at Time,” and then you were at that place at that time
Yes. And there wasn't this obsessive need to text someone when you left your house to go to their house. "I'm on my way!" "Leaving now!" I don't care. I do not care when you leave your home. Just be here when we agreed you would be here and that's enough. Mother of pearl.
Yes. A bit earlier, in the mid-80s, I spent a couple of years living and traveling in South America, and God, was it a different world. I'd call home once a month so my parents knew I was alive and kicking (calls were $3-5 a minute, and I was living on $5 a day, so once a month was it), and there was something wonderful about the complete freedom of no one I knew knowing where I was on any given day. (I was 23/24 then and oblivious; now as a parent I look back and I can't believe my parents had to go through that, but that was life then, and we all took it for granted.) You'd meet other travelers and spend the night talking, and then you's shake hands and say, "have a good life," and mean it, because there was no way to stay in touch beyond that (yes, you could exchange mailing addresses, but no one was going to write). Today I have two girls, 18 and 3, and I am sad that they will never know that level of freedom. So yes, I am old, etc., and some things are better now, but others were definitely better then.
The Internet Revolution and its consequences have been a disaster to the human race. My generation (Gen Z) have spent our lives using these instant-gratification devices. All it’s done is make us more atomized than ever before. Political partisanship has skyrocketed over the past few years, largely due to media echo chambers.
I live in Brooklyn where there are still record stores. But it’s mostly a hipster thing. So even that is a subculture now. Young people otherwise have no place to congregate, which is also a big reason youngsters aren’t having sex anymore. We all just stay inside and communicate through screens. That’s not how stable communities are built.
re: email. I'm a little older than you and there was this beautiful time, between 1993 and 1996 or so, when everybody got an email account for the first time. And it was magnificent! There were no stamps to buy and delivery was instant. And without any other paradigm for electronic communication, people wrote each letters. The letters! I've archived my email over the years and the emails I received from friends in this period were just magnificent: witty, informative and full of enthusiasm for the new medium.
Now email is a vaguely oppressive source of work angst. And no current form of interpersonal electronic communication remotely comes close.
So many of the same thoughts, having graduated from college in the mid-90s (and then immediately moved to Seattle to live in a house with friends and enjoy a slow taper toward the end of adolescence).
I think those of us who straddle this divide of pre/post smart phone are the only ones who really understand the impact. We understand libraries and dial up and network tv. Days of boredom during summer vacation. And we are also able to move comfortably through the online morass. Neither our parents nor our kids can inhabit both of those worlds.
Yesterday my wife and I went to the Guitar Center store at the mall just to bum around. She just started taking guitar classes a few weeks ago but is getting really into it, so the idea was just to wander around and enjoy seeing all these accessories and instruments from the new perspective of "wow, someday I might come in here and look for something with intention."
It was like all the chain music stores of my youth: The rooms arranged by instrument, then the big bank of speakers and the walls of guitars. You don't need permission to come in and grab something off the wall and plug in and play. Six teenagers in identical beanies and faded, baggy coats were nestled among the speakers, either noodling intently in their own private worlds or noodling happily and unself-consciously in little "yeah, we're in a band" groups.
It was a good place to be. On our way out three more teenagers in beanies wandered in and settled in among their friends. Everybody just killing time at the Guitar Center. It could only have been more like The Olden Days if there had been a group of teenage girls flipping through the records and t-shirts, studiously not looking at the boys when the boys glanced over to see if they were watching, occasionally meandering over to sit on a speaker and make a song request.
Anyway-- I loved this essay. And that's what it made me think of.
Just gorgeous -- loved reading it.
"There was often a lot of time to kill, which felt annoying then and seems good now."
I've been thinking a lot lately about the value of boredom, of having nothing to do, of needing to fill hours and not having anything prepackaged to do so. In those times, it was miserable to feel that ache of a seemingly endless afternoon, but it drove both reflection and creativity. I'm surely nostalgic, but watching my daughter's time get filled in by dozens of things, days bursting at the seams, I don't envy it.
The 90s were awesome, indeed, but I actually graduated from high school in 1989, and although college was amazing, I spent most of my 90s working for some weird, unknown reason. There were quite a few wonderful moments nevertheless, but personally, my 30s (the 2000s) were better, even though the world was worse for affluent Americans. That decade is the one in which I met my wife and became a Dad.
Even in the early 90s, we still had the sense that earlier generations had partied harder and better than we had, and that the glory days of youth culture were not quite over, but they were ending. I can't imagine that young people felt that way in, say, the 60s and 70s.
Freddie, PLEASE make this into a book. It would have to be expanded, yes, but this is a classic in the making. Make it into a book and then tour it in 10 cities at bookstores or possibly intimate club type spaces. You would have people coming out of the woodwork, not least of which would be Gen Z as they know, or I think many of them do at least, that they are missing a lot as a generation but don't know quite what. This is one of the best things you've written, not just in content but in style. You just keep your head down and run here. So please consider a full length album of this superb first single.
"Teens today don’t have sex, or so the sociologists tell us..."
I was legitimately surprised to discover this when my children reached their teenage years, and possibly it is even more pronounced among professional class teens in the North East, but it really is true that current teenagers engage in significantly less sexual activity than Gen X teens. They also are far less likely to drink or use drugs semi-regularly. If you had asked me when I was 35 about the likely effect on these behaviors of every teenager consuming vast quantities of media, I would have guessed the opposite.
I'm curious what other commenters believe the best explanation for this is. This article seems to hint at the author's belief that teens today are living inside their phone rather than outside of it. Maybe. I'm not convinced. My best guess, at least among professional class teenagers, is that the change in the way they are parented, scheduled up, rarely left alone without adult supervision is the more likely explanation.
I'm about your age, Freddie, and I feel this a lot too know, especially with two toddlers and finding myself thinking thoughts like, "These two are going to view the 1980s the way I view the Second World War." And, yes, there were a few years there, especially as a teenager, where you could really believe that we had won the Cold War and were ready to move on to a global society of peace and freedom, without being ironic.
As an older millennial you knew that the apocalypse was right around the corner in the 80s - even if your parents never explained Mutual Assured Destruction or whatever to you directly, it was just in the cultural atmosphere. To somehow get out of that peacefully, to have the other side just fall apart under their own weight...and then to win in Desert Storm, with what seemed (to a ten-year-old) a clear, unified victory - it felt like the Cold War and Vietnam and all this cultural heaviness just lifted.
We had 2000 ahead of us and we weren't yet running into dates that 1950s science fiction was using for "First Mars Colony" and "Hyperdrive Discovered." For ten years there you could almost convince yourself that Peace and Freedom and Capitalism and Democracy were just going to keep expanding right into that Star Trek future.
As a fellow elder Millennial (1981) I wholly endorse the views expressed in this article (although I did a bit less drugs).
I also feel like there are about 15-20 things in this, including the premise*, that would get you cancelled, or at least dog piled, if posted on Twitter.
*Obviously you could have only enjoyed the 1990s b/c you are a cis het white man who couldn't see all the prejudice and oppression women/queer people/POC faced back then (but you also can't acknowledge that life has gotten better for any of these groups since then).