Also the 90s Were Objectively the Best Time to Be Alive
Many things in It’s So Sad When Old People Romanticize Their Heydays, Also the 90s Were Objectively the Best Time to Be Alive reminded me of growing up. Overall a trip down memory lane, but also a reminder, similar to A truly great country is within reach, that there was a period between about 1990 and 2008 where things seemed to be, generally, on the up.
A record store was a place. And places demonstrate importance; sometimes they demonstrate devotion. You’d go in there and there would be a couple vaguely pretentious staff members and people pawing through racks of CDs and a wall of t-shirts and posters. And they’d play cool shit that you hadn’t heard before, which was one way to discover new stuff. So was flipping endlessly through every CD in a row. When you were there you were Doing Music.
Probably there were a couple of proper record stores in Chester, UK where I grew up, but I was not the kind of confident kid that’d hang out under the watchful eye of any vaguely pretentious staff regardless of the shop type.
In the end, I was nowhere near so cool as this. I didn’t go to record stores, I hung out in places like Virgin Music and HMV, which were more like music supermarkets. One was intensely lurid and brash and the other felt like you should be at least 30 before walking in. Which back then felt like the age where you begin to be god-awfully old and uncool.
But I remember buying CDs at both these places, and flipping through racks of CDs. I think HMV was where I narrowly avoided paying several times the price for the gold version of Nirvana’s Nevermind. But in the end, those places were not where one would hear a new band and sidle up to the staff and ask in a quiet voice just who the band was, quiet enough that no one else in the store could hear you.
Eventually I used AOL Instant Messenger, and it was a fun weird thing that people did for necessarily short periods of time because their mom needed the phone line. The internet was pretty fun, when it was just this thing that you used occasionally, before you carried it around in your pocket
The first instant messenger I used was ICQ. I guess in about 1999. At that point, I think perhaps three of my friends really used the internet. Given that the internet tied up the phone line and cost like 5p per minute, the chance of being on at the same time as a friend was, on the whole, about zero.
So you talked to other people. In text and ASCII smilies. ICQ had a button that you clicked and it’d connect you to someone else who was also online. Unlike ChatRoulette years later, there was an odds on chance you’d end up having a civilised chat. Although still quite possibly only once and never again.
I’m not sure how many times I clicked it. It might have been just once. But one person I did talk to for a while was a girl in Egypt about my own age, who was Christian and told me a bit about what it was like to be a Christian in Egypt at that time. We spoke on and off for a year, sharing snatches of life. A day at school. Hot pavements. The propensity of the sky to drop water in the UK, and the propensity for it not to in Egypt. And then we didn’t. But it’s always stuck with me, that I learned a little about a life quite different from my own first-hand, through brief conversations with someone halfway across the world.
The internet was young then, and the potential was intoxicating.
Gas was cheap, and we didn’t yet know that we should feel guilty for burning it.
I get it. I totally get it. It’s better that we’re actually facing up to the fact that we’re screwing everything up with the planet now. But it was nice to be ignorant back then, not feeling that every extravagance was contributing somehow to ending the world. And the feeling of the sun on your back on an unseasonably pleasant October day was just something to be enjoyed quietly rather than a harbinger of worse times to come.
And in many ways I hope I’m not a curmudgeon. I love my Kindle and I love my Spotify. I love my nice speakers where I don’t have to get up and dig up a CD from a pile of other crap. I like that we have non-shit alcohol free beers. I like that I can work in a hut at the bottom of my garden and be more effective than in a smushed-up Office Space style cubicle farm. I like that the weather forecast is actually often correct now we can run the models on a million cores in the cloud.
But still. I hope that by the time my daughter grows up we’ve figured out how not to be stuck to our phones the whole time, and not be destroyed by doom-scrolling and to have figured out a healthy relationship with the internet. I think we’re in a dip right now, all this stuff is new even if it feels old, and we don’t know how to use it really. We’ll get there.
The pleasure of having your own site is that you can come back in ten years and see if you were right.