In many of the topics explored in this site (letters, music, photos, finances, etc.) there have been huge changes over the last, say, 70 years. So much so that a description of how we used them in my youth might only be vaguely recognised by my grown-up children; but it will be completely unrecognisable – maybe even incomprehensible – to my grandchildren as they grow up in the coming years. This represents a huge gap in knowledge and understanding when it comes to these younger generations making decisions about what memories, information, artefacts and practices to keep or discard. To illustrate the point, and perhaps to inform the younger reader, below are several descriptions of how it was in the past and how it is today.
The past: For the first 60 years of the 1900s, records were sold in the 78 rpm (revolutions per minute) format. By the 1960s, these had been replaced by LP records (Long Playing, 33 rpm). People bought records and played them over and over again and really got to know their contents. Most people had a collection of LPs which took up quite a lot of space and was fairly heavy. Smaller cassette tapes arrived and a place for them was found in the record cabinet. Most houses had a large stereo music system which could play all these formats and which included a radio as well. Then CDs arrived and people replaced their records and tapes with them – and of course had to buy new equipment to play them on.
Today: People download digital music onto their mobile phones – sometimes whole albums, sometimes single tracks. They play them through their headphones or over stand alone wi-fi loudspeakers. Some prefer to just subscribe to a streaming service like Spotify and have access to millions of songs.
The past: For most of the 1900s, people used to buy a film of between 12 and 40 photos, load it into their camera, take pictures, and then take it to a shop for developing. When the prints came back and they’d been shown to family and friends, some people put them in albums but most just put them in boxes or drawers. When someone died, the photos that were found were passed down the family.
Today: We have a camera with us all the time in our mobile phones. We take photos at will, discard the rubbish ones and keep the rest indefinitely . Sometimes we share them in systems like Instagram and Facebook. Eventually we find we’ve run out of space on our phones and we have to delete some or move them elsewhere. When someone dies their mobile phone, and all the photos it contains, may be passed onto the family for them to sort out.
The past: Books were produced by publishers who selected authors, and arranged the printing and distribution of the books. Authors who couldn’t find a publisher willing to invest in them were able to make their own arrangements for their books to be printed – but at a substantial price. Printing was a large scale engineering operation which used a variety of mechanical techniques for creating a plate from which multiple copies could be printed. In the 1980s, computer-based printing systems emerged in which pages were created in publishing software and printed directly on digitally controlled printers.
Today: E-books, which can be read on a tablet computer, are widespread. Hundreds of e-books can be stored in one tablet and can be read anywhere. Despite the popularity of e-books, physical book sales are still holding their own. Physical book production is cheap: individuals can download their completed texts to specialist services on the net and get a one-off physical copy for the price of two or three rounds of drinks. Alternatively they can elect to have a specialist web site sell their book online in e-book form. However, authors still have great difficulty in finding a publisher who is prepared to invest in them and fund a print run of physical books and organise their distribution and sale.
The past: In the middle of the 1900s some people didn’t have a bank account and just used cash. Even in the 1970s many people were still given pay packets containing physical cash. Those who did have a bank account were sent hardcopy statements every week or month. Payment in and out of the accounts was mainly by cash or cheque. Cash was obtained by queuing up in the bank and handing over a cheque for cash from your account. Most big banks had a branch in every town. Loans were usually provided through the bank but were given close scrutiny and were approved only for specific purposes. People paid for goods with cash or cheque. In the 1960s,to reduce fraud, people were issued with cheque cards which they had to sign and then present to shopkeepers along with their cheque.
Today: Most people have a bank account, an associated debit card, and a variety of credit cards. Debit and credit cards are as acceptable as cash. Contactless payment by passing these cards over a machine, is widespread. Many people are in overall debt across all their accounts. Large numbers of loan firms push their services and encourage people to apply, though many of them impose punitive interest rates. Cash is obtained by using debit and credit cards in cash machines which are widely available. Online bank accounts are commonplace, and users are able to use them to make their own payments to other people’s accounts. Banks are increasingly shutting down their local branches.
The past: For centuries we have been writing letters and sending them to each other. They were personal, informative and reflective; and they took a little time to write. People often kept the letters they got from the special people in their lives. You didn’t get too many letters, so waiting for the postman’s delivery used to be something to look forward to.
Today: We get loads of hardcopy mail – but most of it is junk. We are also deluged by email both at work and at home – too much to handle really – and replying has to be done quickly. We also send and receive large numbers of texts which somehow seem better because they are short and quicker to create and deal with. We have huge collections of emails and texts held within the systems they came in, which we are able to search and retrieve at will. However, moving these stores or accumulating them together is not a practical proposition, and probably a little pointless given the huge volumes involved. They are useful just as they are, but useless in any other state. We don’t write too much that is reflective, however we do keep in much closer touch with the minutiae of the lives of our families and friends through systems like Facebook.
The past: People used to carry little pocket sized diaries with them. They contained a space or page for every day of the year, and sections for addresses, phone numbers, and notes. If you lost your diary it could be disastrous and you might never again be able to find some of the information it contained. People kept their old paper diaries and were able to look up what they were doing or somebody’s address many years later. Some people kept larger diaries, and wrote reflective summaries of what they’d been doing on a particular day. Business people often kept separate diaries at work. Many families had a shared calendar in a prominent position in the house.
Today: Calendar and name and address information is mainly kept in mobile phones and/or email systems which are usually backed up in the cloud. Some people still use a paper diary as well to record their appointments. Old calendar information is always available in the current system you are using; but special effort is required to extract it and maintain it in some separate store. Many families still maintain physical shared calendars in the house.
The past: The landline telephone was hugely important throughout the 1900s. Nearly all businesses and households were connected and their numbers could be found in the local phone book which was delivered free to every house and office; or via the free national directory enquiry service. For those without a phone, or away from home or office, public phone boxes were installed locally in every town and village. In the 1990s, phone-based voice messaging systems became popular as an alternative to the emerging email systems; and voice conferencing started to become an essential business tool.
Today: Most people carry their own mobile phone with them everywhere, and make and receive calls anytime, anywhere. The mobile phone handset has become a powerful personal computer in its own right and includes a sophisticated camera, the ability to store and play music, and facilities to send and receive email and to access web sites. Many households and offices also continue to have their landlines as well, though people are increasingly questioning the value of having both. A whole variety of directory services offer to find landline numbers – but at a cost. Finding out mobile phone numbers is more difficult – individuals usually just provide their number to those who need it. Voice messaging systems have sunk without trace. Voice conferencing remains an essential business tool – though it is often provided through internet-based services. In fact, the internet provides an effective free alternative phone capability which delivers video as well as voice, and many people use this via services such as Skype to keep in touch with their immediate families if they are living far apart.
The past: In the 1970s, there was no internet, there were no web sites, and email was for specialists in the know. If you wanted information – say product information, for example – you sent away for it, received it in the overland mail, used it, and then filed it for future use. If you needed to find out facts, people used the dictionaries, thesauri, and encyclopaedias that they had in their homes and offices. For more in-depth information people used to go to libraries.
Today: Most information is available on tap in web sites; and that’s where it stays because readers know the latest version will be there next time they want to use it – people are now much less inclined to keep information locally. In fact, there is so much information on the net that people now regard it as their second memory and instinctively google information when they encounter a gap in their knowledge during a conversation. They also use the net to research anything and everything about potential employees or people they’ve just met – what their experience is, what they’ve been doing, what they look like and where they live. Even obtaining pictures of almost any object is easy using image searches. However, the longevity of information on the net is not assured: web sites are being updated or removed all the time. So, people may be being lulled into a false sense of security about what the net can be relied on to provide in the long term.