Once you’ve reached a certain age (somewhere north of thirty), it’s easy to look back on your teens as a golden age when everything was better. It’s a helpful armour against the terror of getting older and creates an enjoyable, albeit rather smug, camaraderie with friends.
As early as our late twenties, me and my friends started looking back with rose-tinted glasses to the nineties, our epoch of noisy Britpop when it was, of course, the best time to be young ever.
Oh, how the music was better. The economy was better. The New Labour government rode a wave of political optimism. Popular culture wasn’t dangerously over-sexualised.. And our lives hadn’t yet been taken over by smartphones, computers, the internet and automated checkouts.
It’s easy to demonise the things that today’s young are passionate about, even reliant on. It gives you a nice feeling of superiority and wisdom.
But as someone who enjoys the benefits of modern digital technology (I’d be lost without Netflix and my bus tracker app), I still feel a deep sense of emptiness with it. Partly, perhaps, because I experienced my teens before it had such a grip on our lives.
Younger colleagues are often shocked to learn that I was as old as eighteen when I bought my first mobile phone. For the time, I was a relatively early adopter. Shortly after that, I left for university with my very first computer, an enormous PC and monitor; technology that I much slower to adopt. And it was many years after university, and well into my working life, before I owned a digital camera.
Before that, in the mid-nineties, we were still buying singles on cassette tapes and listening on our Walkmans, rewinding the tapes with a pencil to save the batteries on long car journeys. We laboriously created ‘mix-tapes’ of our favourite songs and when our favourite band came on ‘Top of the Pops’ we recorded it manually onto a VHS tape. You couldn’t just watch it again later on Youtube.
As quaint as this sounds, it was only twenty-ish years ago. And these experiences had an authenticity that I often miss.
Dashing out of school on the day of your favourite band’s single release to buy it in Woolworths and rushing home to listen; not instantly downloading it from iTunes. Giving a boy you fancied your parents’ home landline number because no-one owned a mobile yet. To call you up, they’d have to run the gauntlet of speaking with your parents, who almost always answered the phone first. Now that was a real test of their interest!
Burned into my memory is the telephone number, birthday and address of all my teenage school friends. There were no smartphones or Facebook pop-ups to remind you. You had to remember. In short, you had to care. And so when someone did remember, it meant so much more to me than a prompted line on my Facebook wall.
But the digital camera and new ways of taking and sharing images is the technological advance I least appreciate.
Before the rise of digital cameras, photographs were taken on rolls of film with only 24 or 36 shots per roll. This wasn’t just the practice of artists and traditionalists as it is now; everyone took pictures this way. The film itself would have to be wound on by hand each time, making it impossible to fire off ten shots in quick succession and delete nine rubbish ones.
You couldn’t retouch or reframe afterwards. You couldn’t cheat. But if you took a really great picture, there was a huge sense of satisfaction.
You also had to plan. Imagine a week-long holiday; if you were an enthusiast like me you could easily set off for the airport with ten rolls of film in your bag. You might not be able to buy more but I invariably did, running around in search of a gift shop.
A little dial counted down the number of frames left on your film, and you had to keep a careful eye on it. Do I really need another shot of this skyline, or should I save my five remaining shots in case something cool happens? Often something cool didhappen, and you didn’t get a picture because you were fumbling to change the film; a fiddly process that I frequently messed up and overexposed the film, ruining all the pictures.
When that happened, I’m sure I let off a few swear words. But when things aren’t straightforward you can accept mistakes as part of the experience.
Crucially, at this point you hadn’t even seen a single picture you’d taken. With no digital viewfinder or mobile screen with an instant preview, now you had to wait and hope they had turned out well.
I loved the anticipation of trotting down to Boots to collect a big wadge of photographs after a wait of 7 long days while they developed the rolls of film (or just 24 hours if you were feeling flush!). I’d open the envelope immediately and dive in as, one by one, memories of a holiday, sleepover or day mucking about at school came flooding back. Laughing as I tore up the unusable shots of my fingers and that one weird shot at the end that was always a strange, over-exposed blur of orange.
Sharing the pictures was entirely different too. You and you alone possessed your pictures in a neat envelope or leather album. Showing them to friends and family was an effort. A choice. You had to carry them around, find the moment and talk them through your album, experiencing their authentic reactions in person.
In many ways, you had to be much braver.
Imagine returning to your office today after a week in Ibiza and walking around with envelopes of photographs to show everyone. Today’s social media albums are the equivalent of unguardedly taking your envelope of holiday snaps around to show literally everyone you know; regardless of how appropriate it is, or how interested they are in them.
But perhaps most importantly, in the pre-digital age you were always in control of when, how, who and why the photographs were shared.
Given the potential for bullying and harmful behaviour on social media platforms, I am thankful for having passed my teenage years at a time when it was difficult for anyone to take a picture of me and indiscriminately share it with large amounts of people. But once boundaries have been altered it tends to be very difficult to reverse.
After many years of resistance, and with all my major life events recorded on rolls of film, curiosity got the better of me around eight years ago and I received a digital camera for Christmas.
At first, it blew my mind. Now I could take hundreds of shots on a single camera.
No film to replace. No annoying plastic pots to cart about everywhere with the used rolls. I could really go to town with this! And so, the more pictures I could take, the more I did take. I became snap happy. Click click click. Zoom zoom zoom. And they all looked brilliant.
But as much as I love the quality of digital images, my heart sinks a little as the digital viewfinder instantly presents me with my picture. It’s too easy, too immediate. I have thousands of beautiful, well-taken photographs stored on my laptop which I can’t be bothered to have printed, let alone look back over. No more trotting down to Boots to see how they came out.
The process has gone. And I now realise it was the process, as much as the product, that I loved about my old camera. The quirks and trials and rewards of using it.
As a teenager, taking my camera out was a special feeling. For ends of term, birthdays, Christmases and days out with my mates. But now I walk around with a sophisticated camera-phone in my pocket every day. It just isn’t special any more.
Growing up on the cusp of the digital world taught me one important lesson; it’s effort that makes something worth having or worth doing. And I do believe that still exists now, despite the ease with which we do many things.
Ultimately human beings evolve with the environment around them. Maybe we have evolved other meaningful experiences to replace these.
I might roll my eyes when a parent has ‘Facetime’ with their child on the train, but technology made that moment possible. In the nineties, the parent would just not have been there at all at bedtime.
It isn’t all bad. But if I had the chance, I would definitely rewind to my old film camera. I’m probably better at replacing the film these days, too.