Was there ever a time before we were assimilated by virtual culture?
Oh 1996, how boundless the world felt and the future appeared! I was 9 years old and my life was video games, Legos, and the New York Mets. The tyranny of the female form was still four years away and Nintendo 64 was a technical marvel.
Born in 1987, I’m old enough to remember life before we were thralls to the digital realm – a perspective younger generations will never have. A time when digital lives didn’t exist or were in a state of naive infancy. We had all the fruits of modernity without the plethora of bullshit that comes with owning an iPhone. 1996 was, in a multitude of ways, better than 2016.
I am a disenchanted member of the first millennial generation. A late 80s baby born and raised in the old world, while coming of age in the digital one. I rode my bike around town, built forts and played video game consoles with no Ethernet jack. My first glimpse of a naked woman was when I discovered and raided my cousin’s trove of dirty magazines. Thanks, Larry Flynt.
I have memories of life before the virtual world was mainstream – before checking your email became as necessary as changing your underwear. In 1996 we had AOL, but there was a certain excitement and anticipation when hearing your modem dial-up. As a 9 year old I was just thrilled to log onto the Internet, even before realizing Hustlers and Cinemax weren’t my only means to see a pair of boobies.
My inner curmudgeon says that “unlike kids these days,” we saw the Internet as a novelty. There were no sinister algorithms tracking our purchases, or some random relative friending us on Facebook. People’s political opinions weren’t regurgitated on Twitter and Donald Trump was merely a cameo in Home Alone 2.
Even when the millennium took off and cable internet ushered in a high speed culture, the novelty was still alive and just damn fun. In 2000, when I spent a year living in Florida, computer games kept me connected to my best friend back home in New Jersey. StarCraft and battle.net allowed us to team up virtually in mock galactic combat, keeping our friendship alive as I dropped nuclear bombs on our opponents.
Today, in 2016 – the year of The Donald — I find myself longing for the past. Whether the decadence I perceive is real or a product of self-pity after a long winter of gluttony, thoughts of the 90s fill my mind as I try to expel Hillary Clinton’s frozen smile from my brain. Memories of Ace of Base and Sega Genesis at my best friend’s house come rushing back. Hot summers at his pool when I was drunk on soda – possessed by a bout of ADD.
My mother and her best friend sneaking cigarettes while the kids wallowed in the ball pit at Burger King, all of us ignorant of whatever microscopic infestation coated the playground. I wasn’t locked indoors due to every known malady flooding my parents’ newsfeed. There was no Netflix- we would head to Blockbuster! My best friend, Ryan, would even try to sneak into the ‘nudie’ section.
In all of my young naïve glory, the 90s world was my oyster. When my mind returns to 2016 a feeling of deflation overtakes me. It’s not the impending reality of a Trump – Clinton race, or the prospect of resorting to online dating. Facebook culture has even infected our love lives. No more spontaneity; now there’s a vetting process before a cup of coffee.
Ultimately, it’s the realization that the 1990s are gone. The promise of technological progress has arrived and it kind of sucks. No grand enlightenment as the World Wide Web consumes the globe. Just goat videos, myopia and a world plagued by tweets from Kayne West.
Honestly, who can say constantly being connected translates into more fun, or a richer life? Facebook isn’t fun. Maybe it was in 2006, but now it just turns into upkeep, like paying rent or schmoozing with relatives during Thanksgiving. Just another thing I have to answer to as I huddle over my phone, oblivious to the world around me.
Like the rest of us, I’m a sucker for a good GIF, or an endearing puppy video from YouTube. I love to Spotify. Going from Beethoven to Katy Perry to Pink Floyd in mere seconds is one of the finer human accomplishments. Still, can we say all this allows us to have more fun compared to the things we had at our disposal during the 90s?
When I revisit my old VHS collection, or play classic video games, the technology seems archaic. But hearing the wheels of the tape furiously spin in the VCR was all part of the fun. Super Nintendo – the greatest console of all time- still causes me to rage when Mario and I fail to save Princess Peach from Bowser and his Koopa Troopas. We couldn’t stream it over Twitch.tv for the whole world to see. The only multiplayer was when my friends and cousins came over to show off their own skills.
Our lives haven’t improved because we can carry our life around in a smart phone. Having Netflix on an Xbox doesn’t make movies better. Self-driving cars will only make Americans lazier. The digital revolution only served to give us more of what we already had. The thrill is gone.
But I’m lucky. Not just because this tirade comes from a place of detached privilege, or because I may actually live to see the Mets win a World Series. As a first generation millennial I possess the invaluable experience drawn from living between two worlds.
Younger generations will never know the life before the Internet, or virtual culture in its formative years, but I do. They’ll be thrown into a world of digital noise without the option of becoming a disenchanted curmudgeon.
Let the young inherit the earth, and I’ll keep dreaming of 1996.
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