Vanishing GenX

[Note: this post was originally called Vanishing Americana but it makes more sense to call it Vanishing GenX, hence the weird permalink.] I guess one gets nostalgic as one approaches middle age. Or maybe, as a professed progressive liberal, I’m nostalgic for the Bush Jr years—what we now call “the good old days”. For whatever reason, I thought I’d transcribe a list of things that most fellow GenX’ers will recognize as fixtures from their formative years but that most millennials (the group I mostly teach as undergrads at Berkeley) may not even recognize the names of. Email me if you want something added to the list.

In no particular order, and inspired by the book Going, Going, Gone: Vanishing Americana (which is itself inspired by the original Vanishing Americana: Pictures of the American Past), here is my list of newly-vanishing Americana…

  1. Microfiche at the library. Remember how one had to look up old newspaper articles before the web?
  2. Projectors in classrooms; the AV club. There was always the one kid who could set up the 16mm projector to watch “educational” films. The kid was often part of a mysterious coven called the AV club. Now it’s all on YouTube. By the way, the film projector is itself a small marvel of engineering.
  3. X-acto knives in publication layout. If you were a school newspaper editor, yearbook photographer, etc., paste-up sheets and X-acto knives were tools of the trade. Now it’s done using desktop publishing.
  4. Having to plan ahead when meeting up with friends, because there are no cell phones. It used to be that getting a group of friends together required significant advance planning, especially if you were going to meet in a crowded place, like New York City or Disneyland, since once you left the house there was no way to reach your friends. 
  5. Going to the video store. Video rental stores weren’t just about renting the video—the act of going to the store became a cultural fixture itself. (The intriguing book From Betamax to Blockbuster chronicles this social history and its effect on the moviegoing consumer, and the documentary Rewind This! chronicles its effects on the entertainment industry, both of which are more profound than most of us realize.)
  6. Phone books. It’s hard to explain this concept given that voice calls are barely a thing anymore and that phone numbers are exchanged via SMS. It’s particularly hard to explain the Yellow Pages.
  7. Dialing 411. Ditto. (I wonder how many of my students have heard but not understood the expression “Here’s the 4-1-1…”)
  8. Physical special effects. Movies like 2001: A Space Odyssey and Star Wars featured groundbreaking special effects long before digital video was possible; they had to do it the hard way. 
  9. Fotomat and other 1-hour photo booths. Time was when a 1-hour turnaround before you could actually see a photo was considered miraculous. And of course you’d pay the incremental extra fee to get two copies of each photo—how else could you share them?
  10. Metered long distance and outside-exchange calls. Imagine always being in voice roaming mode. If you had an SO who lived outside your telephone exchange (itself a complicated concept to explain, in an age of mobile phones)—or if you were a geek like me who liked to spend time on BBSs—it mattered whether the phone number was inside or outside your exchange, otherwise the calls could be metered and quite expensive. Now that area codes are roughly irrelevant and unlimited long distance calls are features of most plans (assuming you still use the phone system and not Skype or WhatsApp for voice calls…), metering is basically a thing of the past—except when you’re roaming.
  11. Typing your term papers, using carbon paper and Wite-Out. (Thanks to Steve Hand.) I was an early adopter of word processors, but up until 1981 I was still typing. In fact I wish I’d saved the typewriter, I have kind of a nostalgia for one now.
  12. Getting off the couch to change the TV channel, even though only about 6 channels of VHF were available in the days before cable. Hard to know where to even begin to explain this one to millennials. (Thanks to Allison Jaynes.)

My colleague Robert Jones from Intel suggests adding [I edited his list slightly]:

  1. Actual card catalogs at the library
  2. Encyclopedias
  3. Landline telephones [sic: retronym] with a real bell and a long cord that had to be untangled regularly, and a dial (whence “dialup”)
  4. Dial-up modems. The only place you hear the sound now (well, it’s close) is a fax machine
  5. Mix tapes. Since it took just as long to make a mix tape as to listen to it, when you received one, you knew the other person had invested a lot of time in making it for you.
  6. Film cameras. My 15-year-old twins stared blankly at me recently when I described it.
  7. VCR programming.
  8. Dot matrix printers and the sound they make.
  9. 8-track tapes. They were already on the way out when we were kids.
  10. Printed airline tickets with that weird red carbon paper.

Things that are on the way out but haven’t made the list yet (younger readers might at least recognize these as “things their parents are familiar with”):

  1. Printed maps
  2. TV Guide
  3. Passing notes in class
  4. Fast-food restaurant birthday parties
  5. Clocks you have to set manually
  6. The Boeing 747

Send me a note if you have other suggestions…