BCI – Before Current Internet
Within twenty years at the most, he reflected, the huge and simple question, “Was life better before the Revolution than it is now?” would have ceased once and for all to be answerable. But in effect it was unanswerable even now, since the few scattered survivors from the ancient world were incapable of comparing one age with another. They remembered a million useless things, a quarrel with a workmate, a hunt for a lost bicycle pump, the expression on a long-dead sister’s face, the swirls of dust on a windy morning seventy years ago: but all the relevant facts were outside the range of their vision. They were like the ant, which can see small objects but not large ones. And when memory failed and written records were falsified—when that happened, the claim of the Party to have improved the conditions of human life had got to be accepted, because there did not exist, and never again could exist, any standard against which it could be tested.
Last year, there was a Twitter Thing where somebody said that technology had not improved their life one bit. People jumped on that a lot, and wrote extensively about the ways the Internet improved their lives: Giving access to information, to other people, to assistance and reach, to navigation and fun. As a person who is Very Online, I sympathise and could probably write a book-length text about the ways the Internet has shaped and mostly improved my life.
Coming as a shock to absolutely exactly nobody, I used to read a lot as a kid, and the thing I liked least – even less than predictable plots! – was condescension. History books or even historical fiction for kids would go out of their way to assume that you were stupid and unimaginative. “The Ancient Romans had no microwaves to warm up their food”, they would say, and I’d roll my eyes so hard that I had to start wearing glasses.
But actually, those object-level history lessons were always the most interesting ones to me. I cobbled up a keynote last year by describing how people have handled calendar reforms, driving system reforms, castle takeovers and similar breaking changes to everyday life, because people dealing with daily life is the most interesting thing for me. Sure, the big things are useful points of reference: emperors, invasions, army movements. Take Ancient Rome, the probably most fanboyed period of Western human history: The emperors are all delightful¹ to learn about, sure. But more interesting than the character of Caligula is how people got their grain, how they know what would happen at the Colosseum when, how new laws were communicated, how money handling worked (the super rich bought and sold property for millions of sestertii, those were not moved around physically), and so on. Where would you go to get minor illnesses treated? How many layers of clothes did they wear, how did they handle facts of life like birth, death, menstruation, failing sight? If I go out for a night of drinking, how does that work, where do I go, what’s different from today?
I might out myself as a nerd, but: Investigating these things is fun. It’s fascinating to go looking at ancient wine prices or countertops, reading about the knowledge we have available, the facts we can guess (and how! Historians and archaeologists are so clever if they don’t have to figure out that somebody is gay), and the things we won’t ever know. And the things we won’t ever know can at least be approximated: Historical practice of all sorts of crafts is a niche hobby that exists for every historical activity you can think of. Architecture, agriculture, war, food, needlework of all kinds, people work on reconstructions everywhere.
So, what’ll LARPing the time Before Current Internet look like? Having discussions without looking up the answer. Planning out routes manually in maps that refuse to adjust their size to your required level of detail, or just following infuriatingly vague descriptions. Having to look up a fact – or even worse, finding a specific quote – and spending a day or a week in the library. No unlimited music collection that will adjust to your every mood. You’re bound to the people living close to you for regular interactions, though of course you can keep up stylish correspondence. As a result – the horror! – people would even talk on the phone voluntarily. – Etc, etc.
All that is to say: Don’t listen to Winston, object-level history is fun.
¹ the train wreck variety