A time portal journey to the pre-internet era

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I inadvertently created my own archive of pre-internet academic life, and spent some of this weekend exploring it.

The year after I graduated college, I was doing short-term work where I could find it, and was also busy applying to grad school. I had the luxury of being able to living with my parents. That year, I spent quite a bit of time back at the college I just graduated from (which wasn’t far away). I was working there as a teaching assistant, and I spent a lot of time in the periodicals and journal stacks reading articles, which definitely was part of figuring out where I’d want to go for grad school.

After that year of the grad school search, in August 1994, I bought a one-way ticket to Denver, to start working on my PhD at the University of Colorado. Today, I found the receipt from the travel agent for that plane ticket, which cost $64. While I had essentially moved away from my parents’ house for good, I wasn’t responsible enough to fully clear out of the house. At some point after I left (and I have no idea if it was weeks, months, or several years), anything that vaguely resembled My Stuff was packed into some cardboard boxes and stashed away in a closet. This then turned into a time capsule, undisturbed for over 25 years.

After moving to Colorado, then Texas, then Maryland, then San Diego, I eventually ended up moving back to LA. When I came back home, I thought — wow, I’ve been away for so long! But now, I’ve been back for as long as I went away! And now that I’m in the neighborhood of home, Sandwich Generation duties call, and part of this is the reckoning with the time capsule that was created for me when I left in 1994.

It was a lot of stuff from high school, college, and the year after I graduated. Nowadays, I make sure I can always find this type of stuff in gmail, but back then I kept anything that seemed like it had potential information value. Let’s just say the recycling bin is quite full now. Anyhow, I came upon my old CV from undergrad, med school application and interview correspondence (I was a premed). Also, was a whole drawerful of promotional materials from graduate programs that I was thinking of applying to. Lots of bank statements and pay stubs.

Imagine that it’s 1993 and you’re applying to go to grad school at, say, Arizona State University. Based on some papers you’ve read, you know that there’s a professor who does work that you like, who works there. How do you learn more about the place? You could send them a postcard in the mail. You could phone the office. You might send an electronic mail if the office has started using it. Then, you’ll get by post some glossy brochures and photocopies describing everybody in the department and their research interests, and how to apply to the program. As I was going through the paperwork, I had a thick file folder of all of the postcards I got in the mail informing me of the status of my application (whether all of the required materials had been received).

This was a transitional period of time, in which early-adopters were starting to use email, but there were still plenty of people who were not. And anything resembling official paperwork (like an application or travel plans or whatnot) wasn’t transmitted over email. Some of my prospective graduate advisors responded to emails, and I think the ones who didn’t simply didn’t even know they had an email address. And they were quite receptive when I sent them a note in the mail, or had called. On the telephone.

It’s always been true that your capacity to find success is based on who you know. But as I’m going through this paper archive, I’m realizing how much more that was true back then. Without support from my faculty advisor, I would have been entirely and hopelessly lost in the process of applying to grad schools. I wouldn’t have even had an idea where to start. And it’s not like I could find a straighforward guide about what to do in a library or a bookstore. The grad school recruitment process in ecology and evolutionary biology is arcane with lots of weird conventions that only make sense through a warped academic lens. And who would I work with? Are there other faculty in the department with similar interests? Do they have other people in their lab at the moment? How much do grad students get paid? This is the kind of stuff that we take for granted because of the internet, but it’s something that you couldn’t readily learn about back then. Some kinds of information that we consider to be open knowledge nowadays were essentially secret, unless you had access to the people and/or institutions who were invested enough into sharing this information with you. There was no twitter or reddit. (There were usenet groups, though, but it’s not quite the same.) I was entering academic life in a time when word of mouth was even more critical, and digital avenues were not available for distributing access to opportunities.

Along with the mechanistic change from using postal mail and phone calls to using websites and email, what else has changed? People expect things to happen a lot more quickly. For example, my first manuscript submissions in the late 90s were still by postal mail. You submitted multiple photocopies of the manuscript, so that the editor could send them to reviewers by post, and the decision came back by post. Moreso than speed, I think there’s more interest in being informed about process and greater transparency. Lots of folks will log in to the manuscript site to find out where the MS is in the process. That kind of information availability was unthinkable back then. You just put it in the mail, and it was a lot easier to not think about it until it showed back up in the mail.

Another thing that’s changed is whose ideas get disseminated, and who gets to share their ideas in a venue where other people can see them. In the olden days, if something like this kind of blog would have existed, it would have been a newsletter, that I would have distributed using a mailing list by post. And conversations would happen by correspondence that took over weeks and months.

There was a shelf of old textbooks that now are of no use or interest to anybody, even though they cost a fortune at the time. That’s one thing that hasn’t changed.

Let me tell you about the most striking thing I discovered in my time capsule: the letters.

There were so many letters and postcards. Letters from high school friends who had all gone away to different colleges. Letters from that friend I made in Fresno when I went to the international science fair. From friends in college over the summertime. And from friends in college who were studying abroad (for a year, as was the style at the time). Friends who had graduated before me, and geographically moved on to do other cool things. It appears that I had substantial correspondence, by postal mail, with a lot of the people I was close to. People used to write letters! When I try to remember who I might have been back then, it’s a series of cringe-worthy memories, but coming on this trove of letters that I’ve kept over the years, there is now forensic evidence of people who I was fond of, who were fond of me, and we stayed in touch when were weren’t in proximity and were not at our home phone numbers. Because cell phones weren’t a thing.

I’m sure that many wise and smart people have thought about how cell phones, texting, email, and all that have changed how we correspond with one another. And how this affects how we spend our time and how we formulate ideas and how we grow relationships. Without reading up on some of what others have thought, I’m not sure I have any grand wisdom to take home from this yet. It does feel that my perception of the world — and my interaction with it — must have been fundamentally different just because of the way I gained information from it, and how I was able to (and not able to) interact with others. I can only imagine that what we expect of other people has changed, and also what we expect of our institutions.

It’s hard for me to draw any conclusions from this pre-internet time capsule as a natural experimental because of the N=1 issue, and that I have evolved not just because of the internet but because of all those things that happen between being 20 and being 47. But it’s fascinating to see how the me-of-back-then did things, and how I had entirely forgotten how I had navigated through life back then. How quickly we adapt to new circumstances, and yet how slowly the values of our cultures are to pay catchup.

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2 thoughts on “A time portal journey to the pre-internet era

  1. Another great post! It’s amazing to think about how much communication has changed in just 25 years (for better or worse). PLEASE don’t throw out your old textbooks – they are of use! Like your letters, they are an archive. Researchers can use them as historical documents (and as much as we hate to admit, much of the information is still the same). Old things can still be useful (still talking about textbooks, but can apply to people too)!
    Example: https://academic.oup.com/ae/article/64/4/252/5232713

  2. Funny, just went through the same process myself in my mom’s basement, with 4 boxes of papers from high school and college. So many photocopies of handwritten forms for college applications! I remember making photocopies in case the originals got lost in the mail. And yes, so many handwritten letters!

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