Many once-ubiquitous customs and behaviors have become so obsolete that it’s puzzling to anyone who didn’t live through them—and maybe even some of us who did—how they were ever so dominant.

Sports gambling was very discreet

Turn on any major sporting event today and you’re likely to get bombarded with information directly from the announcers about betting spreads, “first bet free,” and upset implications. Moreover, many accompanying advertisements are also about gambling. FanDuel, DraftKings, et al. are tightly interwoven with the legitimate sports broadcasting complex. ESPN has licensed its name to a sportsbook maker. Gambling won.

Until the late 2010s, this all would’ve seemed gauche.

Watching a broadcast before then, you’d never know that anyone was betting on the event, much less get direct encouragement to do so yourself. In the 1990s, my grandpa sometimes mentioned moneylines to me, and asked me to look them up in the newspaper, but at that age I didn’t know what was going on, and I didn’t understand the scope of sports gambling until well into adulthood.

Indoor smoking was everywhere

When I was helping out at a bingo at a school around the same time as I was looking up those lines in The Courier-Journal, everyone smoked in the gym where the event was held. The smell went everywhere you went. Restaurants had (indoor) smoking sections.

Courseware? Never heard of it!

A Mastodon post sadly lost to time had a bit in it about how, in the Star Wars universe, the prevailing attitude toward cybersecurity seemed to be “never heard of it.” That was the same attitude colleges had about specialized education software such as courseware, before about 2005.

Indeed, I attended college in the 2000s and it was even then an intensely paper-driven process:

  • Class papers were often turned in by dropping them in a faculty member’s department mailbox. Only near the end did email attachments become A Thing.
  • All registrations were done by hand in ink on a paper card, until they were replaced after my junior year by a proprietary online system.
  • Every course had a paper syllabus that had to be religiously referred to and preserved.

Now? The syllabus is another artifact of the Paper Age, as Ian Bogost explained in The Atlantic:

The syllabus encapsulated the educational side of college life. This wasn’t just a course plan; it was a document that mediated the student’s relationship with the professor. It was a contract, and those who paid that contract insufficient mind—students who might find themselves in breach—were considered lazy, incompetent, or truculent.

Then, 21st-century software upended how courses were run.

Courseware that tracks and updates every aspect of each class is now so embedded into college that you come off as a Certified Old if you say there was a time when it didn’t even exist.

Passwords and sign-ins were rare

Remembering passwords and, if you’re more bleeding-edge, managing 2FA logins and passkeys, is intensely important now. But you used to be able to use a computer all day without ever having to enter a credential to sign into anything.

Let’s say you’re using a Windows desktop 1 in 1996. Your workflow might be:

  1. Turn on the machine.
  2. Arrive at the Home Screen.
  3. Do some work in Microsoft Office and save it to a floppy.
  4. Print some documents
  5. Play a game off of a CD-ROM.
  6. Fiddle with Paint.
  7. Look at some pre-JavaScript webpages.

Signing into the cloud? Never heard of it.

Console gaming was a lot faster, actually

1995 was my banner year playing the Super Nintendo Entertainment System (SNES). Although gaming has nominally advanced a lot since then, it’s impossible for most modern systems to match the sheer speed at which you could go from not playing to being immersed in a game. We’re talking just a few seconds, to turn on the CRT TV, power on the console, see a title screen, and press Start.

By contrast, modern systems may have to download a patch/update whose file size is bigger than the entire SNES library, before doing anything else. And then loading screens are everywhere. When Mickey Mania came out in 1994, its loading screens were considered painfully slow for the SNES, a console for which it wasn’t even fully optimized. Now those screens would be some of the speediest in console gaming.

Aging was a bigger deal

If you turned 40, people used to act like you were near death. 60? You may as well be mummified. Now there are septuagenarians who are fitter and more active than the 30somethings of the 1980s and 1990s. Modern medicine is astonishing. Lipitor didn’t come to the US until 1996!

Desktop PCs were ascendant

Everyone at my college had a tower desktop PC and a printer connected via serial port. I’d be surprised if anyone there now had a desktop or any kind in their rooms.

Video rentals were big business

The very small town I grew up in once had multiple video rental places. Walls of VHS tapes and SNES and Sega Genesis cartridges. Now physical entertainment media is the outpost of collectors and enthusiasts only.

Edgy white guys, not so much anymore

This one is harder to quantify but I feel like people used to speak in hushed tones about “edgy” white men geniuses such as Kurt Cobain and Lenny Bruce. That moment’s gone and it’s been gone for a while. When a cello duo came to my school in the late 90s, they were astonished that most of the audience had never heard of Nirvana.

  1. I’ve always preferred Macs but I use a Windows example here because that’s what we had at the time and that era was the nadir of Apple’s business. It almost went bankrupt in 1997! ↩︎