Explaining Old Products To My Son

My son turns one next week. He doesn’t talk much, but one day I hope he’ll ask what the world was like when I was his age. I imagine it’ll go something like this.

Dad, what’s TV?

It’s like the internet, but on a five-foot box that weighed 75 pounds. There were only like 10 good websites, and you had to wait until certain times of day to use them – some of the best ones only came on once a week for a few months per year. Every seven minutes the websites would stop and try to sell you shampoo for 90 seconds. You had no say in what was available: Some guy in Los Angeles made the schedule. It cost twice as much as the internet.

Dad, what’s a landline phone?

It’s just like your cell phone, but imagine I shut off every app except the call function and break the screen so there’s nothing to look at, and you can’t see who’s calling you. Then imagine I hook a three-foot chain to the phone and tie it to the kitchen wall. If you call anyone who lives more than five miles away from your house it costs $7.99 a minute.

Dad, what’s a CD?

It’s just like Spotify, but rather than $10 a month for every song in existence it was $20 for a batch of 20 songs, 18 of which were awful and you had no interest in. Each batch lived on a disc that was as fragile as a newborn baby – one scratch and it was useless. You carried around 100+ of these in a black case that weighed upwards of 10 pounds and you invariably lost at some point.

Dad, what’s a letter?

It’s just like a WhatsApp message, except you start by cutting down an 80-year-old tree in Minnesota, shipping it to a lumber mill where it’s stripped into pulp and dried into a sheet of paper that you bought by the pack at an office supply store. Then you spend 30 minutes writing something in cursive and pay a company $0.40 to ship it across the country and hand deliver to the recipient’s mailbox, ideally within two weeks of writing it. The mailbox is occasionally destroyed by drive-by baseball bat.

Dad, what’s a newspaper?

It’s no different than the News app on your phone, but rather than information being beamed by the speed of light and updated instantly it was shipped by the speed of diesel truck and 10-year-old boy on a bicycle who would throw a three-inch-thick wad of paper onto your lawn every Sunday morning. Eighty percent of what was delivered was used exclusively to line the bottom of a hamster cage. The 20% you actually read left your fingers covered in black ink thanks to a design that remained unchanged since the early 19th century.

Dad, what’s a paper map?

It’s like a cross between Google Maps and a Sudoku puzzle. It requires a degree in trigonometry to use and a working knowledge of origami to refold. It didn’t talk to you; you yelled at it.

Dad, what’s a fax machine?

It combines the vision of Gmail with the efficiency of the DMV, and like a news pundit it somehow remained relevant well beyond its useful life.

Dad, what’s a mall?

It’s very similar to Amazon, but instead of free shipping you got crowds, and instead of customer reviews you got disgruntled sales staff. Parking was free for the first 60 minutes but during Christmas season it took twice that long just to exit the garage.


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