Pre-Internet Energy.

By: Jen Shoop
Musings on the miracle and morass of modern technology.

Instagram has been glitchy the past two weeks. About half of you have been unable to access the links I’ve posted there, despite going through all the steps (recommended phlegmatically by Instagram staff) of uninstalling the app, downloading the latest version of the app, logging out and in, etc. In the midst of this, a reader (and fellow business owner) messaged me to say:

“I try to remember that the whole internet is a miracle. I am old enough to vividly remember the before times. I’ll take a few glitches.”

A few weeks prior to that, Caroline Weaver (who has an excellent shopping newsletter hunting down unique, well-designed objects and items for everyday life), wrote: “Some things just can’t be found. And sometimes a suitable replacement is equally impossible. Channel some pre-internet energy and accept that maybe we won’t always be access to everything.”

Pre-internet energy. I’ve sat with the concept a handful of times since encountering it, and it continues to roll away from me like yarn. I can barely (if at all) remember what it was like not to be tethered to the web my entire day.

Is that a bad thing, I wonder?

Personally, I am neither philistine nor luddite when it comes to technology. Though I do fastidiously avoid holding my phone in certain contexts (will not bring to the dining room table; will keep on the table behind me while watching TV; am fairly strict about not looking at it while in bed at night), I try not to exercise too much guilt around my phone usage. I am, after all, the happy beneficiary of a web-enabled world, and most of my creative energy flows through and onto a screen. My livelihood would not be possible were it not for the modes of instant, digital communication made available to me over the past few decades.

I have friends who — by contrast — exercise a kind of asceticism when it comes to cell phones. One of them literally never uses her phone in front of her children. And I mean never. Many of us (I will include myself in this count) fret about the impression we are making on our children, who see us staring at a small plastic square for much of the day, while the activities we are performing on that square are completely invisible to them. We might be responding to a work crisis, or grocery shopping online, or reading a novel, or pulling up a recipe, or checking medical results in a portal, but all of those “healthful” and “necessary” activities are obscured to them. This alarms even me (a declared tech proponent!), as I not only feel that my “labor” is imperceptible to them, and that I am therefore unable to model the action and follow-through I would like them to witness, but that I am inadvertently bestowing importance on the widget in front of me rather than the activities it is enabling. I do not want them to mistake equipment for prowess. On this point, I am reminded of a clever anecdote a read a few years ago: A celebrated photographer attended a dinner party, at which the host commented: “You take such fabulous photographs; you must have fantastic cameras.” At the end of the dinner, the photographer approached the host and said: “You made such a fabulous meal; you must have a fantastic stove.”

There is something sticky about that concept as it pertains to phone use in front of children. I haven’t made much headway with it, but it clings like a burr. The only narrow solution I’ve devised is announcing, audibly, what I am doing on my phone when in their presence and — if appropriate — sharing my screen. “I’m ordering laundry detergent!” or “I’m placing our lunch order!” or “I’m answering a text from your teacher!” These often feel like over-performed disclaimers, but that’s where I’ve landed, with some ungainliness.

Setting that issue aside, though, I am interested by the — what shall we call them? — perceived morals of cell phone use. I have the impression that people find themselves “better than” — cleansed — if they use their phones less than their peers. And, look. I can’t help but admit I feel the same from time to time. Is there anything more off-putting than walking into a room or onto a subway car in which everyone is dialed into his or her screen? Especially on public transit, it can feel slightly garish, slightly post-apocalyptic: we are automatons, programmed to stare into screens. The crotchety old woman inside wants to rattle the cage: “Put down the phone! Interact with people! All romance is gone!” Then again, my phone was a God-send on the daily commute to and from Flatiron to drop off my daughter at school up in Manhattan. I listened to podcasts; I read books; I responded to reader comments; I kept tabs on my son by way of texts from my husband; I jotted down the flotsam and jetsam that might eventually find their way into essays. The phone enabled me to fill my own cup and take care of business during a 40 minute period that would have otherwise entailed staring blankly at the filthy Subway floor while the car light fritzed on and off overhead.

I guess what I’m trying to say is that I’m loathe to draw a hard line. There is a lot of nuance here. And it is OK to admit that “the Internet is a miracle” and also strive to channel “pre-Internet energy.” It has been said that the sign of genius is being able to hold two contradictory thoughts at the same time. I think technology asks this of us. We must embrace it and keep it at arm’s length. We must appreciate its facilities and also cling to the useful habits of “the befores.” I agree, for example, that the Internet has taught us that anything is findable, that anything can be delivered immediately, but much of the actual living of life runs against that grain: in real life, we lose things permanently, and we spend a lot of time waiting. And so we must be circumspect about the habits it is instilling.

Where do you land on this, Magpies?


+I still practice the one-screen-at-a-time rule.

+The concept of a realistic preview has been so helpful to me.

+On remaining interesting to your partner after having children.

Shopping Break.

+Have you used cocofloss before? Trust me when I say you will never go back to the drugstore variety. We just ran out and were appalled that we ever used Glide! We instantly reordered.

+These wide legs are CHIC. Pair with a cream sweater for a winter white moment.

+Just ordered this jute rug for in front of our stove in the kitchen.

+This Sleeper dress is 50% off and I own it in two patterns/colors already — it was one of my favorite styles while pregnant and then nursing thanks to the self-tie waist and button-front.

+Cute scalloped toy bins. (And some thoughts on toy organization here.)

+Speaking of: a round-up of slow-burn toys that have stood the test of time in our home.

+OK, this LWD is perfect. Liesel from Sound of Music vibes.

+I have a few new beauty products from Merit on their way to me: this bronzer stick (which I’ve seen used as more of a contouring stick by beauty pros — intrigued to test?), this award-winning blender brush, and this “complexion stick” which promises to replace both foundation and concealer in your cosmsetic bag?

+Beauty products I cannot live without.

+I accidentally bought my son boxer-briefs instead of briefs and — he LOVES them. I can’t tell you how excited they made him? And they are kind of the cutest thing ever.

+Love this cover-up (60% off!)

+These jeans are on my lust list for the new year.

+This linen romper is so haute couture — so different — and only $115. Imagine with a strappy black sandal. (Sandal look for less here.)

+10 things you need in your kitchen.

+This Pixie Lily dress is on my spring shopping list for mini.

+These jammies are on sale plus an extra 60% off (at time of writing this) — would be cute for a boy on Valentine’s Day. (More VDay jammies here.)

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12 thoughts on “Pre-Internet Energy.

  1. Great analysis! I wish all children could go through a few weeks every year without a phone. We do a version of this by sending ours to summer camp. It’s never going to perfectly replicate the before times, but it’s good for them to have a sense of it.

    1. So interesting, Kate! Like this idea. Do you see a change in their habits or maybe they just have a better sense of perspective. I like the idea that, pre-Internet, we accommodated the notion that not everything can be found/discovered (or at least, immediately). I think this probably led to more curiosity, more mystery, more sleuthwork, more conversation, more research? Even things like “what a bear sounds like.” I mean, really! My children (3 and 5) ask Siri what various animals sound like all the time and I wondered to myself, “How did I think about that? Would I even have thought to ask that question? Or did I just wait until a trip to the zoo? A video at school?”


  2. I love love love the concept of pre-internet energy. Some days I am sickened by how much of my day is spent staring at a screen. Mostly out of necessity (I’m in law school) but it is undeniable that at this point opening up my phone/computer/iPad is just second nature when I have a moment of downtime. I also feel like the pandemic ruined any last bit of decorum when it came to phones and dining, again out of necessity: using our phones to read the menu in a restaurant, etc. When you have to look at your phone to pick out a drink, then an appetizer, then an entree and then to scan a QR code to pay the bill, it is almost impossible not to respond to an urgent text or just check one work email.

    I had a philosophy professor in college who posited, in 2017, that to many of us our cell phones were no different than a limb. They are always with us and we feel physically distraught when they are not in reach (not a perfect analogy haha). Last year, I accidentally left my phone at home for an entire work day and despite the fact that I had my computer and therefore was able to communicate with anyone I needed to reach, I felt out of sorts all day and had to think that my professor was right!

    As you can tell from this rambling, I don’t have any answers!! I suspect that this is something we will all be grappling with this for a long time to come.

    1. Hi Molly – You’ve made such good points, especially on the QR code business. I really hate huddling around a table with friends and everyone’s scrolling through a menu individually. I don’t know…it just removes some of the romance and fun? It chips away at the sense of community/camraderie/intimacy of dining out? I really hate that particular innovation. I guess it’s good in the sense that it’s less paper waste.

      I know what you mean about not having your phone on you. I always think, “But what if my nanny needs to reach me? Or the school? Or my parents? Or what if my site is down and I have no idea?” One tonic that has helped (a bit — because I do still feel that panic when I’ve left my phone somewhere as you’ve described it) is intentionally leaving the phone at home when I walk Tilly, or placing it in the kitchen when I’ll be in the dining room. Like, “I am consciously putting you here and not taking you with me.” It’s helped me feel a bit more comfortable wandering around without the phone. Then again. I was just walking Tilly today and it was drizzly and cold and I was wondering about the weather the next few days, and how that my impact my daughter’s playdate, my runs, etc. I was itching for my phone the whole walk!!


  3. I think the point about both arguments being true w/r/t the internet as force for good/destruction is spot on. (I’d say the same for chatGPT, or any new tech with seismic implications on how we work and create). Greater access to information, easy distribution of propaganda, convenience, surveillance, connection, isolation… it’s a mixed bag if there ever were one. The social-first phase of the internet, though–yeah, it’s still a mixed bag, but on the whole, it does seem more bad (esp w/r/t young people + their mental health!) than good. I’ve read a few predictions that importance of social will continue to wane, and I hope they are right! The question is: what replaces it (nature abhoring vacuums and all). I’m in the weeds of content x revenue data most days, and for most of our brands, the stories that generate subscriptions tend to be markedly different from those that drive pure scale — yet there is more money, real and expected, in the former. (The story is a little murkier w/ affiliate, though the stuff that feels blatantly commission-driven or commoditized rarely converts subs.). A long-winded way of saying: I don’t expect the internet, per se, to go anywhere, but I do think we’re at an inflection point. Here’s to ’23 being the start of more useful, authoritative content, less obsession w/ SEO + virality, more analogue + interest-federated communication (basically, blog comment sections, mastodon, member forums etc).

    1. Wow – thank you for this well-considered, recherche response! I totally agree with everything you’ve said, especially the “mixed bag” of problems and charms that Internet brings us. Definitely for me a moment of “both/and” — simultaneously good and bad — which places, now that I think of it, a lot of pressure on us as the navigators to continually re-assess, pull-up, decide what we like/don’t, etc. It would be easier to just lean in or out but instead we must constantly contemplate whether to keep things at arm’s length or not.


  4. Pre-internet…HaHa, just saw a joke where the children asked their mother “what was it like growing up in the 80’s?” Her response was to take away their cell phone and stop the internet. “There! That’s what it was like”
    I have not tried the cocofloss, BUT I have tried their toothbrushes and they are AMAZING! I gave one to my dentist to try out and he was very impressed with it also. No going back from them either.
    LOVE that you bought boxer-briefs by mistake. Hint…great “mistake”! My son wore boy underwear and when he went to a new school in 7th grade, I could NOT get him to wear boxers. UGH! It was an all-boys school and I knew gym class would be hard for him wearing kid underwear. Needless to say it did not take him long! Introducing them early was a great idea actually.

    1. Oh so funny! I hadn’t even thought of the underwear as a developmental milestone of sorts. Thanks for sharing that! He loves them. He looks too cute in them, too.


  5. Pre-internet energy – love this! I have had to explain to young people situations in my past when “you couldn’t just Google it” and that seemed like a foreign concept,

    It reminds me of a fun episode of the podcast Reply All called The Case of the Missing Hit – it’s about a man who remembers a pop song from his youth and literally no one else does. And there’s no trace on the internet, but he swears it’s real! Even with the most powerful tool, sometimes things just can’t be found…

    1. Exactly!! Which reminds me that Landon found a Reddit that listed “songs from the 90s that no one will know unless they actually lived in the 90s” and we were rocking out to all of these one-hit-wonders / forgotten ballads of our youths.


  6. Love cocofloss, and recently added a water flosser to my dental hygiene regime on the recommendation of my dentist. There is no going back.

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