Pamela Paul wants you to remember your life before the internet ate it

Talking to the editor of The New York Times Book Review about writing in the age of Twitter brain, why people cling to Facebook, and what we've lost to a webbed world

When I dug into Pamela Paul’s new book about “100 Things We've Lost to the Internet,” I had the strangest sensation. I suddenly began to remember so much that I hadn’t realized I had forgotten. What it was like to get a call in high school when everyone shared a phone attached to a wall in the middle of the kitchen. What it was like to rent a movie and commit to it because you’d have to drive half an hour there and back to change your mind. What it was like to wait in public places without any content to force-feed into your mind.

100 Things We've Lost to the Internet” is a nostalgist’s look-back to what the world was like right before the internet ate it. It neither facilely endorses nor condemns the ensuing transitions of culture and folk ways and economics and politics. Its project is to remind us of what we lost, so that we might more thoughtfully engage in acts of choosing about what kind of society to build around a thing that is here to stay.

I caught up with Pamela, who edits The New York Times Book Review when she’s not writing books, to talk about writing in the age of the internet, the losses and gains, how to be wary of heedless transformation without being a Luddite, and more.

“They are choices”: a conversation with Pamela Paul

ANAND: In 2011, the venture capitalist Marc Andreessen wrote a controversial essay in which he predicted that software was “eating the world.” One way to understand your new book, ten years later, is as a confirmation of that thesis, and a catalog of everything that has been eaten.

PAMELA: Well, I guess one thing about being a worrier and a pessimist, generally speaking, is that you get to be right about some terrible things every once in a while. I mean, it is true: the internet comes for us all one day.

But, at the same time, I didn't want to be overly pessimistic with this book. When I first started working on it, each chapter had three parts to it. The first was: this is something terrible that is happening. And the second part was: this is how it got to be that way. And the third part was: this is what it used to be. And I actually ended up taking out most of those first two parts and leaving that third part.

What I wanted to do was to pause for a moment, which is something I feel like we really don't do a lot, and look back at what it was like before the internet. And try to figure out, What is it that we've lost?

ANAND: Something I struggle with when writing about new technology is, on the one hand, these new things are so powerful that they require exactly the kind of scrutiny you and others are applying. We need to resist things that are just sweeping over us.

On the other hand, there is this pattern throughout history, which is that new things come in and people steeped in the older ways think that Elvis is going to ruin everything, or think that mass literacy is going to ruin everything. So I wonder how you struggle with the line between meaningful resistance to precipitious change versus Luddism?

PAMELA: I try to think hard before I make a change. "Am I unhappy with the way whatever this thing is is working now? Is there a reason to change it?" Because, like so many things, technology is largely a business. And so there's a lot of persuasion out there to get us to constantly upgrade or to adopt some new technology in order to sell us things.

In other areas, do we mindlessly buy everything that we're told to purchase? Not really. And yet for some reason, when it comes to technology, being anything less than a mindless consumer is viewed as a negative thing. It's viewed as resistance to change, it's viewed as being a Luddite, as opposed to maybe being a careful consumer.

ANAND: Turning our attention to all-important punctuation matters: One of the losses you write about owing to the internet is the loss of periods, and the proliferation of exclamation marks in their stead online. I have to say, when my parents, for example, text me something with a period on the end, I feel like they're disowning me. Am I wrong?

PAMELA: No. They are disowning you.

I mean, it is considered so obnoxious to put a period at the end of a sentence now. Especially when you could put an exclamation point. There are two options that are now available to you online: either no period, or at least one exclamation point —

ANAND: But I feel like there's inflation. Isn't one exclamation point now regarded as miserly?

PAMELA: It's lackluster. It's unenthusiastic, is what I would say. The least you could do is to put an exclamation mark, but you don't wish someone happy birthday with one exclamation point. Talk about a slap in the face. And the idea that there would ever be a period after “Thank you” — that essentially is like, "Thanks a lot, asshole."

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