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10 Things That Used to Happen Before Smartphones

Updated: Nov 13, 2019 14:21
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Before Smartphones

photo by Ryan Wong

This article originally appeared on App360.

Lately, I’ve been romanticizing the pre-cellphone, pre–social media era. You know, the days before smartphones. Remember when friends would just drop by? How rad was that? In college I lived above Café Pergolesi, right in the center of downtown Santa Cruz, so on a daily basis people who were getting coffee downstairs or just walking by would pop in to say hello. There was a certain magic to it. You never knew who would knock on your door or ring your buzzer and that little bit of mystery was more special than we realized at the time.

Now with Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and all the other social media channels that live in our pockets and purses, we know what all of our friends/acquaintances/exes are up to all the time, even if we haven’t talked to them in ages. Having a friend stop by to unexpectedly share a beer or a story or hug is pretty much something that will never happen again and it’s kinda sad. So with that in mind I put the word out there to my friends and followers on Facebook and Twitter (the irony is not lost on me) to see what they miss about the pre-cell phone, pre–social media era, and this is what we came up with.

Here’s a list of 10 things that used to happen before our smartphones started dumbing us down.

1. Getting Lost

getting lost

photo by Jean-Frederic Fortier

With GPS, Google Maps, and a thousand other ways to route your trip, getting lost is virtually a thing of the past in developed nations. But I kinda miss it. Granted, getting lost could be exceptionally frustrating, especially if you were trying to get somewhere on time. But the wondrous part about it was that you would find all kinds of new things and places and have strange adventures while trying to find your way. It was a perfect metaphor for life. The Tolkien quote “Not all those who wander are lost” sounds ridiculous if it becomes “Not all those who wander have a broken GPS.”

2. Talking to Strangers

image from Business Insider

image from Business Insider

I met my first serious girlfriend on the 71 bus in San Francisco. She got on the bus, we made eye contact, and I went over to her to start a conversation. We ended up being together for 3.5 years and we probably never would’ve met in today’s world. Now if you’re taking mass transit, or if you’re anywhere in public by yourself, your eyes are pretty much glued to your phone. No longer is it okay to just giggle and riff and just talk with the people around you. And when you do, they look at you like you’re a crazy person. Steve Almond wrote an article about that exact phenomenon in Spirit Magazine. It’s like our cellphones insulate us from the world around us. Think about all the cool friends, strange conversations, and great loves that have slipped right by you because you’re scrolling through Facebook. How can romantic comedies exist in this new world?

3. Being Able to Disappear

getting lost

photo by Forrest Cavale

Whether you don’t wanna answer work emails or you just want some time to yourself, modern technology makes it so you’re always accountable for your availability. Before smartphones, there was no expectation to respond immediately to every kind of message sent to you. If someone wanted to get ahold of you, they could leave a message on your answering machine and you’d call them back when you had the free time. Now, there’s no such thing as free time because other people expect you to respond in real time to whatever weird thing they want from you.

4. Cafés Being Social Centers


image from ShowBizGeek

Ever since the Viennese invented those things called cafés, coffee shops have been social centers. Before the invention of Wi-Fi, you went to a café to hang with friends and talk and debate, and get really buzzed on caffeine. For people who weren’t old enough to go to bars, they were places to be social and get turned on to new ideas. Now they are generally just filled with people typing away on their computers, pretending to be coding the next big app but really just updating statuses about how much they love their fancy coffees.

5. The Lost Art of Arguing

arguing about music

One of the greatest things that has happened in our lifetime is that, through the internet, we have access to every answerable thing that exists. You have a question? Just Google it. But it’s also ruining the art of arguing. Before smartphones, you and your friends would just yell at each other about why you thought the point you were making was true and whoever could do this yelling with the most amount of confidence and bravado was generally crowned the truth-holder. It wasn’t exactly scientific, but that’s precisely why it was fun. I miss intensely yelling into a friend’s face, spittle flying and veins bulging, “You rotten brain dead idiot! I’ll tell you what year Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band came out! I know it, the world knows, even your six-year-old sister knows it! It was 1966!” (It actually came out in 1967.)

6. Having to Be on Time

moriss day

Back before everyone had cell phones, you had to actually be on time when you went places because if you weren’t, you may not ever actually meet up with the person you were supposed to. There was no texting “sry. running late. b there in 15.” You had a window of roughly 30 minutes, and if you didn’t show up, you got ditched and you couldn’t complain because it was all your fault.

7. Having an Excuse to be Late


photo by RayBay

Conversely, you also had a really good excuse for being late. There were no apps telling you what the traffic was like or when the next bus would appear and even if there was an accident on the freeway that held you up, you couldn’t call and say you’d be late. Actually, just writing this is giving me anxiety about those stressful days…

8. Enjoying Concerts


photo by Anthony DELANOIX

Get this: People actually used to go to concerts and watch the bands with their eyes and not through their cellphones! Crazy, right? Honestly, how stupid is that practice anyways? How many times have you actually watched the show on your phone after you record it? And also, I know you share it on Facebook to brag to your friends, but none of them actually watch it either. There’s really nothing more futile than recording a concert on your phone.

9. Crank Calling

Screen Shot 2015-07-29 at 10.15.15 AM

These days, if a number rings my phone that I don’t recognize, I just let it go to voicemail. Even some numbers I dorecognize I let go to voicemail. Before cellphones, caller ID only really existed for a few years, so crank calling people was pretty much a rite of passage. I truly feel sorry for modern kids who don’t get the pleasure of leaving a message on a stranger’s answering machine detailing an imaginary drug shipment that’s being delivered to the stranger’s house or something similarly crazy.

10. Delayed Gratification

life Before Smartphones

I’m a hedonist and often hate having to wait for things I enjoy, but there is something to say for the delayed gratification that existed before the smartphone era. You’d go about your day doing all the things you needed to do, and it wasn’t until you got home that you’d check your answering machine to see who’d called you. The little flutter of anticipation was exciting when you saw the red blinking light and wondered if whatshisname or whatshername had called you back. It was also crushing when they didn’t (not that I would know anything about that… sadface). When I was in college, living above Café Pergolesi, we had a whiteboard and an answering machine. If someone called for me and I wasn’t home but a roommate was, they’d write the message on the whiteboard so I’d see it when I arrived. These messages were also usually paired with snarky comments from my roommates and made life really funny.

Also if you took photos, you had to wait for them to be developed before you even saw them. This meant you didn’t know what pictures you’d be getting back and what they even looked like. There was no taking 20 photos in an attempt to get the perfect lighting. I actually don’t miss photos that much because I usually took bad ones and was annoyed I wasted $15 getting them developed.

What do you miss (or not miss) about the days before smartphones? Tell us in the comments.

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Broke-Ass Stuart - Editor In Cheap

Stuart Schuffman, aka Broke-Ass Stuart, is a travel writer, poet, TV host, activist, and general shit-stirrer. His website is one of the most influential arts & culture sites in the San Francisco Bay Area and his freelance writing has been featured in Lonely Planet, Conde Nast Traveler, The Bold Italic, and too many other outlets to remember. His weekly column, Broke-Ass City, appears every other Thursday in the San Francisco Examiner. Stuart’s writing has been translated into four languages. In 2011 Stuart created and hosted the travel show Young, Broke, and Beautiful on IFC and in 2015 he ran for Mayor of San Francisco and got nearly 20k votes.

He's been called "an Underground legend": SF Chronicle, "an SF cult hero":SF Bay Guardian, and "the chief of cheap": Time Out New York.


  1. August 5, 2015 at 10:00 am

    Relating to point #3: Not only are you expected to reply to texts, phone calls, and emails instantly, but I’ve found that people are now expecting responses to Facebook messages instantly as well, as though they are texts. You can no longer deny someone instant access to you simply by not giving them your phone number. Now, if they’re your Facebook friend, they can message you and expect an IM to be pushed to your phone instantaneously. There really is no escape.

  2. August 6, 2015 at 12:55 pm

    And yet sadly I can’t relate as I still don’t have a phone!
    Well, I’ve got a landline…

  3. arbcar
    January 17, 2017 at 8:23 am

    I regret the disappearance of pay-phones. You’re screwed if you really need to make a call and you don’t have a mobile, or you do but lost it, or it’s unserviceable.