‘You used to have a pager? How the hell did you take selfies?’ said my (slightly) younger colleague during a recent chat about growing up in the nineties. Shocked by the idea of having to schedule phone calls on the landline, being limited to a handful of food delivery options and watching TV programmes in real time, her surprise got me thinking about how surprisingly awesome the nineties was as a teenager. And how surreal it must seem to my workmate that I lived a life without filters, streaming and earworm tunes being rinsed on short form social video.

The top technology ‘then v now’ examples that blew her Gen Z mind were:

Phones

THEN: “MUM! PUT THE PHONE DOWN!!” rang out regularly through every family household. With only one landline in most homes, every phone call had the potential for drama. Scheduled house calls, reverse charge cards and telephone ‘chat rooms’ (like internet forums, but with much stricter moderators) boomed in the early nineties until mobile phones became ubiquitous and life changed forever. Topping up credit, endless games of Snake and downloading a polyphonic crazy frog ringtone for £1.99 felt like a brave new world.

NOW: ‘Why is this person calling my mobile rather than Whatsapping me?’ is a current theme. We’re too busy worrying about missing something topical on Tik Tok – or being annoyed for being left on one tick – to find time to actually talk to people. It seems we use phones for everything other than their original purpose – ordering hangover food to your door, telling the world on social you’ve manged to squeeze that pimple that so many of your followers were worried about, watching Love Island on the bus and even finding the right person to spend your life with.

Music

THEN: The weekend was spent browsing HMV or Our Price and fighting over the last single on the shelf. This followed the tradition of having your mates over on Sunday to make sure you hit record at a precise moment of the official chart countdown with Dr Fox (or his regional equivalent) and playing those cassettes repeatedly in your scratched Sony Walkman. And this generation will never forget the pain of rewinding a spooling cassette tape with a pencil, sometimes paying the price for excess rewinding by breaking the tape. Enterprising types could even repair this with Sellotape – these people probably now run NASA’s space programme. When CDs were introduced, we were told that the players were so robust that the disc would even play if it was covered in jam. A series of teenage amateur science experiments quickly proved that this wasn’t the case.

NOW: ‘Alexa, play my top 10 playlists on Spotify’. No need for that trip down to Tower Records, we listen to what we want, when we want and wherever we want. And today’s teens are also spared the virus fest that was Limewire. Result.

TV & Film

THEN: A Friday evening spent browsing Blockbuster was a household ritual. A safe choice Hollywood movie would often be combined with a more obscure second option. With no way of checking reviews while you were in-store, every unknown choice was a gamble. We’d also flick between five terrestrial channels, record our favourite shows on video (making sure we didn’t tape over our school’s nativity play video) and spend hours watching MTV and The Box for a glimpse of Backstreet Boys or NSYNC.

NOW: The likes of Netflix and Prime means never having to move from the bed again. We can wake up and watch last night’s reality show final. We can live pause films to make ourselves a coffee and fast-forward boring scenes, download episodes at the touch of a button and binge watch boxsets for the way to work – or even at work.

Internet

THEN: “What should our screen name be? Bondgirl00U?” MSN was the highlight of our week. We battled with the dial-up for at least 10 minutes with its screeching and beeping and, finally, we would enter the world of chat. HOW R U? WT U DOING?

Hours were spent instant messaging school crushes in chat rooms before checking Teletext for budget holidays. Life was simpler when social media simply comprised a stupid chat room name, a disposable camera and a promise to send your crush at school – hotboy15 – pictures of yourself in a bikini before the end of summer.

NOW: We’re greeted by a different Google logo every morning, we can work from the beach from our laptops, constantly ask for the Wi-Fi code wherever we go, look for jobs/love/houses online, shop for clothes while stalking that school crush on social media and have a nosy down any street in the world within seconds. Life may not be so simple anymore, but it’s got a whole lot more interesting.

THE NINETIES VS NOW

Pagers! Cassettes! Really terrible TV watched in real time!

Words: Suzy Dee

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