I (DON’T) REMEMBER WHEN…: FORGETTING THE PRE-INTERNET PAST

This week I took a guided tour of the Biblioteca Nacional de Catalunya (http://www.bnc.cat/), a superb example of Catalan civic gothic which houses a truly impressive collection of 4,000,000 documents (it is the Catalan copyright library). This was organized as part of a conference on science, fiction and science-fiction I have attended these days, which means I was surrounded during this visit mostly by scientists and engineers, colleagues very much aware of how the history of techno-science has evolved…

Eventually, we reached the area that houses the old card library catalogue, inactive since the mid-1990s when the catalogue was moved online. I realise that the phrase ‘card library catalogue’ possibly will bring no immediate image to the minds of the generations born in the 1990s–do Google it. A scientist colleague suddenly declared he could not recall at all having used the cards, even though he knew he must have done so, as he submitted his dissertation in pre-internet times. So did I. And yes, I recall using cards and navigating my way into the available bibliography at great pains and expense. In contrast, I don’t recall how we managed to communicate before e-mail. Odd.

So, here’s a little techno-academic chronology, hoping colleagues will help me to complete it. A key aspect is this: my generation (born 1960s) has gone through a dramatic technological change as applied to academic work which has no parallel for the current students’ generation, born in the 1990s. You’ll see…

Checking the few papers I keep from my secondary school days, I notice that they were handwritten up to my final year 1983-4. I inherited a clunky typewriter with which I produced my C.O.U. (pre-university) work, hating it all the way as I had to tippex out my many mistakes and even repeat whole pages. My mum, who had done secretarial work in her time as a paid employee, and could type with all the fingers in her hands–still today, I can only manage a two-finger typing style–helped me one stressful evening to meet a deadline I could not have managed on my own. Typewriters were, in a way, recycled into computers in the 1980s. I went on typing my papers until 1987-88 but I must have used afterwards a programme incompatible with early Microsoft’s Word (was it Corel’s WordPerfect?) because I do not have the files. Word files started materializing coinciding with the beginning of my doctoral studies in 1991.

There was no internet in Spain, then, throughout the years of my doctoral studies, except for small pockets of pioneering users in technological universities. I got my first laptop, an awesome Toshiba, back in 1994-5 when I spent a year in Scotland–the screen was black and white and I had no internet connection. I don’t recall anyone using it in Stirling University and we doctoral students, definitely, had no e-mail address. I still keep the letters that family and friends sent me. These, yes, are the last personal letters to have ever reached me and I cannot begin to say how sorry I am that letter-writing is dead. Facebook and Twitter can by no means replace that, though e-mail may have done so for a while.

I submitted my doctoral dissertation in 1996, which is also the year (I think) when I got my first official university e-mail address (it might be 1997, rather). No internet access yet. General talk about the internet started in Spain in 1994 but monopolistic Telefónica provided the first commercial services as late as 1996: Infovía, which lasted to 1999 and Infovía Plus (1998-9). These internet connection services, like expensive lawyers, billed clients (using modems!) by the hour. They were so costly that one of the main incentives for me to join the online Universitat Oberta de Catalunya in 1998 (founded in 1994) was that the contract included free internet access (of course… but not for long).

Customer pressure mounted and by November 2000 the first flat rate ADSL service was commercialized (it was legislated by the Spanish Parliament in 1999), finally charging by month regardless of the amount of hours of actual connection rather than by time spent surfing the net. Still, the new flat rate was too expensive for most Spanish homes and further campaigning was needed to reduce it, which finally happened in 2002 (Telefónica was privatized in 1999, so this must have coincided with the liberalization of the communications market in Spain under José María Aznar’s Government).

Although I am not sure whether this is reliable data, I made a note here in another post saying that internet access was made available in classrooms only in 2006-7, not even 10 years ago. I really cannot recall when I started using databases like MLA or websites that now seem fundamental to me, like IMDB. The web 2.0 revolution launched in 2004/5 still makes me nervous, however. I have, I think, adapted well to resources like Academia.edu, or the Dipòsit Digital de Documentació of my university and, of course, I have been publishing this blog since 2010 and have my own website since, possibly, 2012. Yet, I have no Facebook account and Twitter overwhelms me. No Instagram, either. And, um, I use my cellphone mainly… as a phone.

This summer I have been re-reading and even translating some of my oldest papers and I realise that their modest list of bibliography has nothing to do with my inability to find sources but with how the demand for long bibliographies only started after the uploading online of the main bibliographical resources. MLA is very imprecise when it comes to informing about the exact date when this happened in the case of their International Bibliography, simply noting it was the mid-1990s. The database indexes now items back to the 1880s, as in April 2003, the JSTOR’s language and literature collection was added. The print version was finally discontinued in September 2009. As we all know, 30-page papers including 50 to 75 citations are now common when in my time as a doctoral student 6 would do for a course paper. As I have already mentioned here how my MA dissertation (submitted in 1993) has an enormous bibliography because I was trying to prove my proficiency as a research–the bibliography that took me months to complete can now be completed in one morning.

Now, if you were born from 1996 onwards in Spain this means that you have known no other world than the current one, dominated by the internet. Perhaps from this perspective it is easier to understand the addiction to Wikipedia of the oldies who had to make do with library cards…

I think that my scientist colleague had forgotten how to use a card library catalogue because we are a little bit embarrassed as a generation. Recently, I had to explain to my 14-year-old nephew what a cassette player is–remember we are the ‘compilation tape’ generation, best embodied by Nick Hornby’s Rob Fleming in his novel High Fidelity. We got rid of the cassette tapes, then the VHS tapes, now DVD is going out pushed by BlueRay. I still keep in my closet a, um, vintage telephone with a rotating disk instead of buttons for the numbers.

Can we be this Jurassic?? Early cellphones are, frankly, pathetic but they are a first sign of a revolution happening. Catalogue cards, in contrast, are a memento of a world that lived long but died in just about five years. This is, I think, why we have blocked our memories. It must be similar to what the generation that passed from horse carriages to cars felt back in the early 20th century.

So, let’s recall… unless we forget.

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2 Responses to “I (DON’T) REMEMBER WHEN…: FORGETTING THE PRE-INTERNET PAST

  1. JoseAngel says:

    I love this kind of post. A small comparative here with my own experience:
    – 1st experience with computers in the early 80s… you had to load the system to the computer from a cassette tape (yes that’s what it says).
    – Began my MA dissertation (“tesina”) by hand, and then typed it out first in a conventional typewriter for the provisional version, an electronic typewriter for the final one.
    – Considered buying an IBM (the year was 1985) for my dissertation, decided on an electronic typewriter instead (you had to add code in order to write italics and so on at that stage…). But quickly switched to a Mac without a hard drive or system.
    – First experiences with hypertext & links & networked computers in the USA late 80s.
    – My first electronic publication in the Internet, in 1995. Sounds like prehistory now.Last century I advocated that our academic society (AEDEAN) should publish the proceedings online, and I guess people thought I was weak in the head. Needless to say, the board disregarded the suggestion.
    – I had to wrestle e-mail and an Internet connection from the University in the early 90s, as they were only bothering to give that service to the science departments. Back then people used the phone, and they still use it. Those were the days, and these are the days too, all the time.

  2. Thanks!!
    I’m proud to say I was the one to convince AEDEAN to publish the proceedings online, back in 2011, when we celebrated AEDEAN here in Barcelona.
    Did we really use the phone??
    Sara

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