I have been alerted to the fact that a few of my readers are young enough to be heading off to college in the fall. If you're eighteen and reading my blog, you're probably about as nerdy as I am, with the concomitant problem of having had virtually nobody to talk to for the past twelve years of schooling. Ideally you don't also have the problem that I had, where you family is so bad at this Earth thing that they shipped you off to school without teaching you how to do laundry or fill out a check, but I wouldn't dare to presume.

Just for y'all's edification, I'm thirty-one. I finished my undergraduate degree almost a decade ago. This probably makes me a dinosaur in your eyes, but in many ways the environment at my college was substantially like yours, and substantially different from the ones your parents, five to ten years older than I am, would have lived in. We had sort of 0.8a versions of a lot of the technology you all take for granted, and a lot of it drove our parents bonkers, because they didn't have the foggiest clue how to work it.

A lot of people had cell phones, although they weren't quite common enough for the university to give up on running landlines to the dormitory rooms -- if you didn't have a non-mobile phone, you could get one from Residence Life. They had a PBX -- a private branch exchange, like their own little phone company on campus; we had two of the three-digit prefixes all to ourselves in a town that had a population of 50K when school was in session -- and you could set up things like call waiting, voicemail, and specific ring patterns for specific numbers, so that you'd know if you were ignoring calls from your parents or your roommate's. A lot of the students who did have cell phones had them specifically because their parents were trying to kid themselves that a portable phone which could be turned off was going to help them keep track of their prodigal son or daughter. Phones were not "smart". If they were human, they'd have been eligible for a home care aide. They were built like tiny walkie-talkies -- i.e., bricks with stubby antennas -- and while texting was already kind of a thing, T9 predictive dictionaries did not exist. Damnyouautocorrect.com is hilarious, but at least those phones recognize you're trying to make words.

We also had high-speed internet. The main difference here was that for a lot of students, this was their first experience with always-on cable-style connections, and the kind of fat pipe that let you download entire CDs and creepy anime at whim. Even I -- living in a tremendously geek household with a father who still typed with his index fingers, and used a primitive caveman modem to peck out I MISS YOU HONEY to my mother when he was installing network gear in Europe in like 1982 -- got booted back onto dial-up when I was home for the summer. Nowadays you buy a Mac and you get an AirPort as a lagniappe, but back then, you had to specify you wanted a network card in your computer, then buy a cat-5 cable, and then make sure you located the computer somewhere close enough to the wall jack to plug in. The online environment was much the same, though. We had KaZaA, which was like BitTorrent without the entirely justified paranoia, and Facebook, although that was only open to college students at the time. A lot of us used IM clients as a sort of answering machine -- since you never had to close the connection, we just stayed logged in constantly and let other people drop messages into the window for us to read when we got back from class.

Network gaming did exist, although it was PC-based rather than console. Each dorm was on its own subnet, and you could get insanely low ping times if you happened to be playing with someone in your wing of the building, since you were on the same switch. It was largely FPSes and strategy games like the Civilization series; MMOs did exist, but were not anywhere near as popular as they are now. If you wanted to tank your college career by playing video games rather than going to class, you mostly had to do it in isolation. Pre-Wii, drunken Mario Kart was a big thing. There were two guys in Mog's dorm, whose room happened to be right next to the exterior door, that had a sign up advertising $5 Mario Kart tournaments. We gathered they did a pretty brisk business.

Online classes were just starting to be a thing when I showed up. Moggie is still taking some, and informs me that the software is not really any better. It just has more fancy buttons to fail at loading. Our university happens to have had an online registration system since before my time, but I don't know how usual that was; until just after the turn of the century, it was actually a very simple web service skin over some kind of primitive database backend on a Unix server. It worked perfectly well until they "upgraded" it to use PeopleSoft, which I can only assume is an invention of Satan meant to slow the social and technological growth of humankind.

We did have Winamp. We did not have, as Moggie puts it, "enough gig" for all of the music, which was a continual problem. My first computer, which ran Windows 98, had an impressive 6GB system drive in it. (Current day reality check: I fixed the other laptop with a 320GB SATA drive that Moggie happened to have lying around doing nothing, because it wasn't big enough.) I turned back up in January 2000 with a brand-new CD-RW burner crowbar'ed into my desktop, and it made me rather popular. Blanks were relatively expensive, and new enough that the "700MB" kind were pricier than the "650MB" kind. CD players had not yet collectively figured out WTF, and some of them would freak out and refuse to acknowledge burned discs, because of the slightly different reflectivity. MP3 players came out when I was a couple years into my college career, in the form of portable CD players that would play either regular audio CDs or CD-Rs burned with MP3 files. I had one, because I am a media nerd. This was a mind-blowing amount of music at the time. The general mindset was that when you wanted to listen to something different, of course you had to pop out one disc and put another one in; a 128kbps joint stereo MP3 works out to roughly 1MB/min, so having almost eleven hours of music on one CD was crazy.

Video was also a thing, although in much smaller doses than you find now. Simple MPEG video has a characteristic grainy quality that differs from both videotape and from the modern MPEG-2 encoding used on DVDs or the MPEG-4 in DivX compressed video; it looks dithered, almost like a GIF with slightly too few colors in the palette to handle the contents of the picture. Flash existed, although at the time it was Macromedia Flash rather than Adobe Flash. It was invented to do almost exactly the opposite of what it's for today, which was to display simple line art and static objects moved along spline paths to eliminate the need to encode huge full-frame animations for stupid things like webtoons and menus. YouTube wasn't even a gleam in its daddy's eye.

Pirated videos did exist. They were of crap quality and you didn't download them, you got them by having someone who had a better computer and more hard drive space than you record a tape or DVD the roundabout analog way (feed signal to computer, tell computer to record what's on the screen, wait), leave the computer alone for a few days so it could masticate the enormous raw video file into some kind of MPEG format, and then burn you a CD. This probably doesn't sound so bad to you, since DivX and its cousins can get a 45 minute HD Doctor Who episode crunched into 300-500MB without completely destroying the picture quality, but getting a movie onto a disc back then involved making a VCD out of it. VCD uses MPEG-1 encoding, which is questionable at best. If you wanted to actually see anyone's facial expression, you had to split the film across two CDs. The main advantages of distributing bootleg VCDs instead of bootleg VTs is that VCDs proudly maintained their crap picture quality through generations of copies, whereas after three or four iterations, an EP videotape is pretty much unwatchably mangled. I didn't personally collect contraband blockbusters; mostly what we used this technological innovation for was ordering fansubbed anime, because it was the one thing we couldn't rent at the video store or pester the university library for.

PDFs existed, although because of their size they were considered more of a graphical file format to ensure that your wotzit printed out the same on every computer, regardless of OS or printer. If you were into samizdat textbooks, you had to stand there and photocopy the entire thing -- the library blatantly failed to care -- or retype it to distribute it as RTF. There was such a thing as OCR, and I actually had a flatbed scanner whose driver package included it; it was mostly good for the kind of amusement Google Translate is used for today, which is feeding it random text and then laughing your ass off at the blind idiot gibberish that comes out. I don't half wonder if it contributed to l3375p34k -- if you had to deal with it a lot, you kind of got used to seeing things like 1 instead of I, o instead of 0, or |2 instead of R, because your software had no notion of context and the IQ of a turnip.

Webmail was already common, although we did give the dinosaurs the option of checking their university email via telnet. Most students had a Hotmail or Yahoo! account somewhere. I got someone to chisel a GMail invitation into a stone tablet and send it over by messenger slave shortly before I graduated, which was the only way to get an account when they were still in closed beta; one of my usernames has been an active email address for almost a decade now. I try not to think about this too much, as it makes me feel old. IRC wasn't and still isn't completely dead, but the chat medium of choice among the kiddies was AOL Instant Messenger, which had already been released as standalone software so that AOL users could talk to people on other ISPs. ICQ, uncommon today, was a pretty close second, and Hotmail (now MSN Messenger) and Y!Messenger were also around. All of these were fundamentally incompatible, which forced you to run a squintillion little chat programs at once until Trillian was invented.

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