What Did People Do Before Smartphones?

In 2000, I got the RIM 957, my first BlackBerry. It received, in real time, emails sent to my work account. Such receipt would cause the device to flash a light and buzz, pager-style. It buzzed constantly. When set just right on the counter, the vibrations would resonate through stone and lumber, alerting the whole room: An email has arrived!

Sometimes you can feel the future’s shadow looming over the present—formless, cold, Lovecraftian. So it was with the BlackBerry. Its capacity to inject digital events into the ordinary world even when they weren’t wanted inaugurated the smartphone age: one of constant online life everywhere. But it wasn’t like that yet. Back then mostly executives had the new device, and government officials, and people who thought they were important. (I was the last kind; I made software.) My co-workers and especially my wife were repulsed by the “CrackBerry,” and my compulsive grasping at it, like Gollum with his ring.

Over the years that followed, I kept clicking on my keyboard phones until eventually the iPhone replaced them. I have memories of using a Palm Treo on the train and my BlackBerry at lunch through most of the 2000s. But I can’t remember how I’d spent my idle time in the years before, on the train or at lunch or at any other time of day when we found ourselves between things. Literally, what did we do? I cannot recall.

Some things are easy to reconstruct. Email came to you at your desk, which means you didn’t receive it while at lunch or once you’d left the office. MapQuest was around, but you had to print out directions before you went anywhere. Photography was less a part of daily life, absent social media on which to post. Some dumbphones had cameras, but they were terrible, and stand-alone digital cameras were still expensive and mostly used to generate images for printing.

Okay, fine, but how did people occupy the time, attention, and perceptual orientation that have now been overtaken by smartphone use? Answering this question seems important, because smartphone use is supposedly deleterious. Extreme use is often blamed for contributing to anxiety, depression, and compulsivity—and almost everyone seems to use these devices to extremes. Smartphones are also said to disconnect us from the world and from one another. Instead of enjoying lunch or tourist attractions, people take photographs of them, frequently to secure approval from their peers, who are also using smartphones. The sociologist Sherry Turkle famously lamented how these devices encourage people to live “alone together.”

I asked some middle-aged friends to think back to life in the old days, when we still lived together together—and then to tell me what they remembered doing. “What the heck did I do?” one replied. Some fragments of childhood life could be recovered: shooting hoops in the driveway, or passing notes in class, or burning time hunting for friends to burn time with. But the nature of our idle life as adults evaded memory. Even surfing the early web, the precursor to today’s scrolling, was made tedious by slow connections. Other things took longer too: consulting a paper map before driving anywhere, finding and then conversing with a salesperson to select an appliance. Daily non-activities—waiting at the supermarket line, sitting in traffic, walking the dog—took place under different circumstances. Worse ones.

A spine-chilling revelation: We couldn’t remember what we did because there was nothing to remember having done. We did nothing, and it was horrible. Filling the nothingness with activity of any sort became a constant exercise. Talking on the phone offered one approach, however poor. Telephones were the only way to connect with your friends synchronously from afar. They worked astoundingly well, and except for the cost of tying up the line or getting a crick in your neck, local calls were free. Advice, ideas, and tips weren’t as accessible before the internet arrived and then matured, so you might phone a friend or a business for information, not just for chatter.

[Read: A world transfixed by screens]

But telephonic banter back then was similar to smartphone social life today. Phone calls were just as mediated as text exchanges. People pursued them to get away from whoever else was in the house or the office, just like they do with text messaging today. A phone call filled the empty time, even if it also helped create a social bond. And the calls could also strain the very bonds they helped sustain, by setting them against the burden of paying for long distance, or the trick of reaching people at their homes, where their phones were wired to the wall. Old-fashioned telephones caused longing and deferral too.

Television was another way of killing time. We watched a lot of it. Game shows, daytime soaps, sitcoms, the evening news, MTV—television was just sort of on, sort of all the time. In homes, if people were there to watch them. But also in airports, doctors’ offices, and laundromats. Some train and bus stations had tiny, coin-operated televisions bolted to the arm rests of their seats, a reminder of the desperation people felt when confined.

And we scrolled for ambient information by flipping pages, in whatever newspapers, magazines, or catalogs happened to be nearby. Like smartphones do today, these offered ways to see something—anything—that we hadn’t seen before, while waiting for the next thing to happen. Periodicals were spread in waiting rooms, in airline seat-backs, on benches in the park. Free alt-weeklies and classified rags were godsends when no other options were on offer—during a long wait for a restaurant table, perhaps, or while stuck at the auto-repair shop. In the idle time we now spend on our phones, people used to read anything and everything they saw—junk mail, subway ads, the backs of cereal boxes, the story on the restaurant placemat, the labels on the condiments. In the beginning people sneered at social media: Who cares about whatever meaningless trifles you found around you? But previously, we cared desperately for exactly those things, absent an alternative.

[Read: Have smartphones destroyed a generation?]

I cannot overemphasize how little there was to do before we all had smartphones. A barren expanse of empty time would stretch out before you: waiting for the bus, or for someone to come home, or for the next scheduled event to start. Someone might be late or take longer than expected, but no notice of such delay would arrive, so you’d stare out the window, hoping to see some sign of activity down the block. You’d pace, or sulk, or stew.

The despair that accompanied this dead time implied and almost required an existentialist orientation to life itself: absurd and pointless, a sea of doldrums that never washed up to shore. My generation’s penchant for malaise must be a direct result of being alone with ourselves so much, with so little reason. We’d read an oral-hygiene pamphlet or a shampoo bottle. We’d follow the smooth-spinning hands of the clock. Yes, sure, other and better and more useful acts were possible, but only if we knew in advance exactly how much time we had to kill, and where, and under which circumstances. But we never did know until it was too late.

Before smartphones, people didn’t invest their in-between time into forging social bonds or doing self-improvement. They mostly suffered through constant, endless boredom. So let us not lament or malign the time we waste on smartphones, at least not so much. It is bad to be seduced into argument or conspiracism, to shop or lust or doomscroll, to bring one’s job into the dentist’s chair or the living-room recliner. But it was also bad to suffer the terror of monotony. Now there is too much happening, but before, ugh, nothing ever happened.

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