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Ask HN: Do you miss 90s simplicity?
102 points by ciccionamente on May 25, 2019 | hide | past | favorite | 142 comments
If so, what in particular?

Let me answer your question with another question. How old are you?

Because I'm in my 40s, which means I was in my 20s during the 1990s. And from my perspective, it was not a notably simpler time back then than it is today. It was not some pastoral idyll, it was just a time a lot like now, except it was a little harder to get a hold of people.

But I do notice that when I talk to people in their 20s and 30s, they often talk about the '90s as some kind of dramatically simpler time. But that's not because of anything about the '90s; it's because they were children during the '90s, and people of all ages look back on their childhood as a simpler time. This is true even of people who grew up in objectively much more difficult times, like the 1930s and '40s. It's not that the world children grow up in isn't complicated, it's that they don't comprehend all the complications. You don't start to appreciate that stuff until you reach adulthood. So to everybody, childhood is like a lost paradise.

This is part of why nostalgia is such a seductive trap. It's so easy to look back on the past and think that it was something it wasn't. So if you try to make it your mission to restore that lost paradise, to restore something that never really existed in the first place, all you end up doing is chasing shadows.

I'm in my 40s as well, and I'd agree. It reminds me of the Douglas Adams quote:

“I've come up with a set of rules that describe our reactions to technologies: 1. Anything that is in the world when you’re born is normal and ordinary and is just a natural part of the way the world works. 2. Anything that's invented between when you’re fifteen and thirty-five is new and exciting and revolutionary and you can probably get a career in it. 3. Anything invented after you're thirty-five is against the natural order of things.”

This is applies to software too.

Software that comes out before your professional career is natural.

Software that comes out beginning and mid career is revolutionary and exciting.

And software that comes out late career is obviously an over engineered solution in search of a problem.

I agree. However, people like Steve Jobs literally did their best after the above-mentioned 35 years of age. Apple basically introduced so many "new" technologies which "broke the wheel" under Jobs' leadership, and he was way passed 35.

Although there are always exceptions like SJ, I agree with the general notion you quoted.

Wow. Strange example. SJ ran a company with thousands of employees.

> except it was a little harder to get a hold of people

Hmm. Really? Few call centres or queuing systems around yet. My bank had a local number that was answered in 3 rings - often by the same person. So did the phone and electric companies, and the tax office. They might actually remember you.

I probably couldn't ping a friend if they were out with the dog, or on holiday, and definitely not in the car - few had mobiles yet, though by the end of the 90s they were getting common enough.

A lot of things were indeed simpler as we've added needless complexity to loads of things. Adding complexity layers seems to be how we solve everything. Even politics was simpler - note I don't say better.

Then again a lot of things were fairly crap - VHS recorders, CRT TV, cassettes.

Computing was much more fun - far many more platforms - SunOS, Amiga, ST, PC, Apple, BeOS, etc, and it was still feasible to know all of the thing. Now it's more likely to be a small part of a much more complex whole, too big for an individual. That speaks of maturing, but also of over-complexity.

Swings and roundabouts really.

Easier to get hold of a human at a corporation. Harder to get hold of your friends when they were out of the house.


I've often thought the main difference between us humans and other animals is that we come up with "complex" (not necessarily better or worse) solutions for our problems, even when those problems are also common in animals (e.g. hunger, mating, thirst, etc.)

Animals seem to find the shortest path: if a lion is hungry, it hunts a deer. But we have made this task [somewhat unnecessarily] complex: there are tons of foods available, each with a number of cooking methods, and thousands of combinations of those foods to sit on our table. Suddenly it's not about hunger anymore, rather it becomes another need (e.g. seeking variety) that arises due to our complexity-loving minds.

Complexity led us to build civilizations, but it also brought about more complicated new problems (e.g. air pollution). Complexity also consumes vast amounts of energy. With our limited power and time, this means extra complexity actually hurts our lives, leaving us with little energy (mental/physical) for ourselves. In my opinion, the most successful people just know the threshold/type of complexity they need in their lives.

Cassettes? We had CDs before the 1990s, thankyouverymuch.

Course we did, but a CD in the car? I think that had to wait until about the millennium. Tapes were still hugely popular through the 90s, even pre-recorded. Never did understand that as pre-recorded tapes had abysmal quality compared to home taping. :)

CD players in cars were extremely common by the mid 90s.

Yeah, I had a factory CD player in my 1994 Mustang GT, and IIRC it was standard starting the year before that.

I had a CD player in my 1994 Nissan Sentra.

I insisted on the richer, warmer sound of in-car vinyl.

I even had an MP3 cd player in 98 or 99.

In retrospect things seem simpler because you know how they turn out.

I feel fairly safe in the assertion that DOS was simpler than Windows 10.

Pretty sure my mum would disagree.

My grandpa would agree, I think. DOS is way easier to teach by rote, and is a much more consistent experience than a modern operating system.

Simpler for what it does? It's an unfair comparison. You could say that walking is simpler than flying, but that's not true if you're trying to get from New York to Beijing.

That is still true if you are trying to get from New York to Beijing. There is waaaay more chance that something will break in your ability to fly to Beijing than in your ability to walk there.

What? No, you would drown if you tried to walk there. I'd say that's about as broken as it gets. What are you talking about?

You clearly never tried setting up packet based TCP/IP on a network of DOS computers utilising multiple brands (and in the case of 3com, different chipsets) of network cards.

You can probably store all the information computers stored at the beginning of 90s on a single server today. That's how simpler 90s were.

I definitely think computers have gotten better since the '90s. Mostly because of the very real scarcity at the time. Unfortunately the last 5 years have been mostly a wash with cpu, memory, storage and gpus not getting better as before. And that seems largely true of phones and software as well.

I'm also in my 40s, and I strongly disagree. While I don't see the 90s as some sort of idyllic calm Zen, the nature of discourse and social connection (or lack thereof) I feel has been seriously harmed by technology.

While I think it's a mistake to look at the past through rose-colored glasses, I also think it's a mistake to think "Oh, well things have always been that way."

The 90s simpler? You try learning a new technology on YouTube in the 90s or reading blogs etc. Students have it so easy these days

Ha, indeed. Books, lots and lots and lots of books. Fond memories of going to Powell's periodically to get more, but not as fond memories of having to learn everything about the computer using a book.

I don't think easier and simpler are necessarily aligned. Ancient hunter/gather life could be said as simpler, but also could be brutally difficult compared to all of the modern luxuries.

There might be more signal, but there's also a lot more noise.

I miss going into a locally owned coffee shop with a bunch of bored people reading worn paperbacks or writing in journals, often interested in striking up a conversation with a random stranger.

Big coffee chains changed that experience. And smartphones have raised the bar, the opportunity cost to meeting a random stranger is higher, because you could be distracting yourself on the Internet.

On the other hand, having a collaborative encyclopedia in my pocket at all times is pretty great.

Also the 90s kind of sucked. Otherwise grunge and goth culture would have never taken off.

Was a teenager then, but here are some of the things that I can think of:

- recessions in many countries '91/'92

- Asian financial crisis '97

- higher crime rates

- reunification in Germany (causing massive budgetary/cultural issues)

- nuclear testing in the Pacific (was a big issue here in NZ at the time)

- threat of nuclear material being "lost" from ex-Soviet military

- collapse of Soviet economies, esp. Russia

- WTO riots in Seattle 1999

- large absolute poverty worldwide (see also the Millennium Development Goals)

>Also the 90s kind of sucked. Otherwise grunge and goth culture would have never taken off.

Goth culture was a thing of the 80s. Grunge didn't suck, it was a reaction to overly commercial music and rock losing its roots.

>recessions in many countries '91/'92

Countries like Italy, Spain, Greece, etc had it worse in 2008 and on.

>higher crime rates

Depends on the country. Some have their record highs these days.

>reunification in Germany (causing massive budgetary/cultural issues)

But hardly a bad thing in itself.

>collapse of Soviet economies, esp. Russia

But also dissolution of the USSR and Eastern Block...

>WTO riots in Seattle 1999

That wasn't a bad thing, that was resistance. It looks like you've just posted news items from that era as downsides of the era...


- Gulf war (unexpected school vacation)

- The most amazing volcanic winter ever

>But I do notice that when I talk to people in their 20s and 30s, they often talk about the '90s as some kind of dramatically simpler time. But that's not because of anything about the '90s; it's because they were children during the '90s, and people of all ages look back on their childhood as a simpler time.

That sounds like an easy copout.

Some eras are simpler than others, others are safer than others, some are more creative than others, and so on.

History is not some amorphous soup of self-same eras...

And yes, the 90s were kind of simpler than today in several areas.

In fact, "when I was younger things were simpler" is so empirically verifiable that it's almost a tautology, for most eras, and even more so for the 1950s-2020 era. Legislation was simpler, bureaucracy was simpler, technology was simpler, choices in many areas were much more constrained, and so on...

I think that is true in the sense that everyone has their own reality. However I don't think that precludes things getting worse. For anyone who has a utilitarian view of housing, or buildings in general, this is certainly the wrong decade in most places.

> except it was a little harder to get a hold of people

I certainly don't miss using the yellow pages to find a store or service, or looking on a paper map to find where the street is.

I think I do. The yellow pages never ran out of power, and wasn’t influenced by a spotty internet connection.

Same thing applies to paper maps.

Why would you miss them? They are not gone. For some reason, I am still getting a yellow pages book every year (it goes straight to recycle), and there still maps in my car, just in case everyone’s phones die while at the trip.

Are you still getting yellow pages? What do you do with them?

Amazing answer. Truth

Yes. The thing I miss the most is the sense that I, and everyone around me, used to be mentally in the same place they were physically.

Obviously people were distracted or preoccupied from time to time, perhaps they had a sick far away relative, say, that dominated their thoughts.

But those kind of situations were the exceptions. Now literally every single person you interact with is mentally in the middle of several conversations with people who aren’t there over text, is halfway through an article or blog post, and is in the midst of judging their own success in gaining attention for the photo they just posted.

You can be in a room with 10 people, but only 10% of each of them is actually present and engaged in the room they are in.

I count myself in this group too of course. In fact right now I’m having a conversation on HN instead of being engaged in the real world.

It kind of sucks.

Truth. In the 90's, if you went to a party and sat in a corner reading a book, it was usually....odd. The idea was that you were supposed to at least try to be interacting with others. Some of us were geeks, some of us found social interaction difficult, but since there wasn't a real substitute for it, we had to stick it out and learn how to be with people. And then we got the benefits of being with people.

Now there's always something else you can do at any moment. I feel like some younger folks I know (in their 20's) don't have the same capacity for understanding their place in the social universe. Social media / phones etc. give a simulacrum of social experience so you never have to really stretch yourself and grow these new skill sets.

Yeah, there used to be a separation of geek stuff from social stuff. Pre- or early-internet era, computing and technical stuff was done in a room at home, or work, or a computing facility at a university. When you left that place, you still had to be sociable with the rest of the world, even if just a little bit. Most of the tech nerds I knew still had downtime and social lives.

Today, people are glued to their devices and social interaction is minimal. It's like walking around a world filled with zombies. Frankly, it's getting weird, and I increasingly don't like it. I've recently been watching some of the old Friends episodes on Netflix, and looking at how they interact at home and outside: reading newspapers, playing cards, just chatting, etc. Reminds me a lot of me in that era as well. Too many people have lost the ability for simple social interaction, and every free moment is spent glued to a screen instead of using that time for... literally anything else: contemplation, idle conversation, looking around at the world, relaxing, doing a crossword, or whatever. Today, those friends would be sitting in silence all looking at small rectangles.

Usenet. Fandom. CW. I was born in 1991, and there has always been a technical subculture ever since Edison.

That doesn't mean it has always been as prevalent, accessible, dominant, acceptable, and so on...

> Some of us were geeks, some of us found social interaction difficult, but since there wasn't a real substitute for it, we had to stick it out and learn how to be with people. And then we got the benefits of being with people.

Or, we could just avoid being with people and play with tech instead. Many a geek kid, myself included, planted seeds for their future careers this way.

I am sure there were as many people who did not like interacting with others as there are today, it's just because now its OK to be like that, you see them more often, back in the days they were just staying home because they felt uncomfortable by judgements of others.

> if you went to a party and sat in a corner reading a book, it was usually....odd

Yes, because why would you go to the party for that? I have spent plenty of time in thne 90s skipping the super boring parties.

I miss 90s complexity!

Sparc, MIPS, and Alpha were still alive. Assembly was a thing.

Mobile telephones for mortals were a marvel and technological breakthrough that could let you communicate everywhere.

3D graphics could run in software, and Abrash' Black Book was a black book, and even more, wizards had managed to capture things in hardware for the PC with some sort of voodoo.

Now we have 1.5 dominant boring architecture where performance is bumped by "Meh, just double the cores and crank it to 11" and no one cares because everything is ecmascript anyway, mobile telephones, or "telephones", are devices that mildly entertain you as you wait for death, and graphics are a matter of dumping the right shaders through the right libraries.

The future just looked a little more interesting. The 90s for me is where the great tragedy of simplification began.

The present is still pretty okay though, I just would have liked it a little "rougher" computing wise :)

  > Meh, just double the cores and crank it to 11
Too true. I'm flabbergasted everytime I think about Chris Sawyer having written everything in TTD, then TTDLX and finally RCT with Assembly (!), and yes, that also includes the window GUI system that was built into the game.

[1]: https://www.eurogamer.net/articles/2016-03-03-a-big-intervie...

[2]: https://www.reddit.com/r/programming/comments/92zyo/chris_sa...

[3]: http://www.chrissawyergames.com/faq3.htm

I think we are headed back that direction.

Custom hardware is coming again. It's coming because we've hit walls on sequential compute. Multi-core parallel and concurrent models are building nicely, but software lags behind, and those problems are hard.

Some problems do not benefit from either of those things too.

Enter custom silicon.

The combination of software and well realized custom silicon to enhance performance, and that's peak performance.

Always is.

Also specialization into specific niches, with cool accessories, like the SBCs are doing. It's pretty exciting. I mean, Python on a chip is pretty amazing.

Totally. Smaller scale computing is a lot of fun right now.

Amiga still teaching lessons, after almost 35 years.

Also SGI

A 250Mhz R5K O2 could map live video onto a changing surface in real time. Among lots of other spiffy, hardware enhanced things.

[a deleted post said]

I miss the trajectory. Many things were exciting in the '90s, but many things didn't turn out so well.

This is pretty much the same way I feel. I'm not sure exactly when things changed, but there is definitely a sense that we went off the rails somewhere along the way. Some time ago there was excitement, optimism, and a sense of boundless opportunity, associated with the Internet and tech in general. Now... well... there's still some of that, but a lot of it has been replaced by negativity, fear, pessimism, doubt, and suchlike. The overall zeitgeist is definitely less pleasant these days, IMO.

I have seen that chance here on HN, which is honestly one of my biggest gribes with the site, everything that is positive is destroyed completely. You can see that with the commentors who used to be found here often (patio11 especially) who are now only around for a few specific threads (but somehow magically there when the threads call for it).

However I am sure it wasn't 9/11 that did it, because I wasn't really on the internet then, and HN didn't exist.

I think my HN participation is just a function of where I am in life right now, to be honest. (Sandwiched between a demanding job which uses a lot of the same cycles that HN used to use and having a young family.)

I think 9/11/2001 was that turning point. Then the crash almost exactly 7 years later made things even worse.

I can't speak for other countries, but both of these events were like a one-two punch to the gut socially, politically, and economically here in America, and we're still reeling.

Yeah, I'm pretty sure 9/11 was a contributing factor. Not sure it was the thing, but then again, there probably wasn't just one "thing" that caused all this. It seems like more of a sequence of things, some big, some little, spread out over time, and gradually skewing the zeitgeist to a more negative, pessimistic, unpleasant outlook.

In regards to tech and the Internet in particular, I think the Snowden revelations and the PRISM stuff was a key moment, in terms of changing the perception of the Internet. After broad public awareness of ubiquitous online surveillance became a thing, the Internet lost some of it luster and became more threatening and less welcoming.

More recently, the Cambridge Analytica stuff, along with all the major data breaches over the past few years, probably contributed to that sensation as well.

9/11 was definitely the turning point - the end of optimism. I never expected that the world would not have recovered 20 years later.

News websites https://web.archive.org/web/19990128201038/http://dnes.sezna...

no spying, popups, animations, autoplaying videos, clickbait thumbnails... just a simple website with information

now I have to use three addons just to get back this clean look

Seriously you dont remember the gifs, the flash , the unblocked popups/popunders/popovers/hijackers etc? It was far worse back then but the signal to noise was better. The reason: lack of social media which is 99.999999% absolute informational garbage.

>lack of social media which is 99.999999% absolute informational garbage.

The purpose of social media isn't to provide "information," but to facilitate communication between people. Making jokes or discussing trivial matters which don't interest you personally, or not doing so in a way that maximizes information density, does not make it garbage.

What makes social media garbage is it takes every human cognitive bias and multiplies it by infinity, and offers very little virtue by way of compensation.

It is psychic damage entirely driven by the id.

It replaces expert advice and ombudsmen with popularity contests and groupthink.

It is a neverending reinforcement loop of your filter bubble.

It mainstreams every fringe movement - because social media uses attention as a key metric, it rewards controversy, outrage, and conspiracy.

It's a 24/7, infinite scale, effectively anonymous and entirely asymmetrical amalgam of the Stanford Prison Experiment, Kitty Genovese, Jonestown, Alfred Dreyfus, Jack Chick, Charles Mackay, the Hillsborough crush, 2 minute hate, the banality of evil, "a lie flies around the world before truth gets its boots on", cargo cults, suicide bombers, the Inquisition, Leon Festinger, "It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble, it’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so", and 1000 other human failings.

the problem is they leak out

No, didn't have flash or java installed before XP; and as I said below - gifs sure, no don't remember any popups on czech sites i visited.

All these technologies existed in webpages in the 90s. There were a lot of popups too, it's kind of a meme https://www.techly.com.au/2018/02/14/techly-explains-fascina...

I'm not denying that, i am just saying it wasn't my experience at the time. Also since I had to pay for every minute of connection I didn't really browse through various sites, I only connected to visit a specific site or do a specific thing.

archive.org isn't archiving the spam. Websites were far, far worse visual and interactive experiences then. Everything blinked and scrolled, popups were rampant and almost impossible to dismiss, there were no ad blockers. It was a nightmare. There weren't sophisticated ad tracking systems or geolocation databases for targeted advertising, but there was far less privacy and security.

I don't remember any popups back when I was on Windows 98, it started with XP and IE6 for me but czech sites might've been a little different. And yea, there were blinking and scrolling on personal sites but sites like seznam.cz were clean.

The fact that all these databases were disconnected arguably gave you much more privacy than can be achieved now.

I agree. I meant to expand on that a bit, in that no one used SSL and individual site security was lax or non-existent. Now the transport is secure but the data is intentionally shared to far more people. It was just a mess back then.

In 1995 I was making $6.75/hour as a line cook, and my combined rent, utilities, phone, and cable TV was $180/month, renting a large old house downtown with 6 other friends.

Dial-up Unix shell/internet access was free through the university. I picked up an original 128k Mac and Mac Plus with 40 MB SCSI HD at a local thrift shop for $40, both of which I still own.

A CD cost $25, a pack of cigarettes was $5, and pitchers of beer were $8.

Ten short years later I would be walking around with an always-connected Blackberry in my pocket wondering how I ever survived without Google Maps, push email, and IM.

180/6.75 = 26.6 hours

I wonder how many hours are required in 2019?

The thing I miss about development in the 90s is that building a web application (such as they were) didn’t involve knowing at least two tech stacks. The backend just queried a database and then spewed out some HTML. In many ways the way we do it now is far superior, and there’s a swathe of things you simply couldn’t do in a web browser back then, but at least it was simple.

Outside of tech? Life was not simple. These days I can arrange more or less anything with a few taps on the supercomputer I carry around in my pocket, with an internet connection that would have put anything but a large institution to shame in the 90s.

Want to listen to some obscure 70s album? In the 90s that’s weeks of scouring record stores.

Order some food? First I have to rummage around for the menu, then call them up and place the order, and finally hope they can find your place because if not your food’s arriving cold after they get back to the restaurant and call you for directions.

Watch a recently released film? You’ll have to drive into town and hope the video store has it in stock.

Go to a wedding in a town you don’t know? Lots of planning, and hope you don’t get lost along the way. I sometimes joke that I couldn’t make it to the end of my road without GPS now.

> didn’t involve knowing at least two tech stacks. The backend just queried a database and then spewed out some HTML

Actually this hasn't changed, you can still work the exact same way with a LAMP stack. The perceptions have changed, for some reason needless complexity has become the norm.

One of the things I miss about the 1990s is the degree that Microsoft, Apple, and other vendors of desktop operating systems such as NeXT and Be invested in refining the desktop computing experience. I personally believe that the Windows 95 interface is the most usable and most well-designed Windows user interface, with further refinements made in Windows 98 and 2000. For many years I would use Classic Mode in newer versions of Windows such as XP and 7; I wish Windows 10 had a classic mode. And while I love Mac OS X's Aqua interface, I love the Platinum theme that was developed for Copland and was introduced in Mac OS 8.

While there was still an effort in the first half of the 2000s to continue refining the desktop user experience (e.g., Aqua, GNOME 2 [which is personally my favorite Linux desktop], KDE 3), once mobile computing and Web 2.0 technology took off a little over a decade ago, I feel that emphasis has shifted away from refining the desktop experience. Moreover, there has been an emphasis on trying to make the desktop computer experience more mobile-like, leading to products such as Windows 8 and GNOME 3 that, in my opinion, are worse than their predecessors. Even Windows 10 still has mobile-like influences such as its penchant for large title bars and ribbons that take up a lot of vertical space (ever since Windows XP's Luna theme, Microsoft has had an obsession with using a lot of vertical space for bars). In my opinion, Mac OS X peaked in the Snow Leopard era, and while I still prefer Mac OS X to Windows 10, I feel that certain parts of the Mac experience have downgraded over the past decade (some pain points include the transition from iPhoto to Photos.app as well as the differences in font rendering in macOS Mojave that affect users who don't have 4K or higher resolution displays). I'm also very concerned about the implications of Marzipan on future versions of Mac OS X, but I guess we'll find out very soon when WWDC 2019 takes place.

I would like to see more investments being made in desktop computing. Despite some pundits prematurely proclaiming that desktop computing is dying, the fact is many people rely on desktops and laptops to do their work, and tablets and smartphones cannot replace all tasks that we use our desktops for. I still believe that the personal computing revolution is far from over; there is still a lot of room for improvement, refinement, and innovation.

On the other hand, traveling was not so simple - you couldn't just carry your mobile phone and pull up Google Maps once you got there - you had to know where you were going and either buy the maps or print out maps beforehand. Meeting up with someone also involved a lot of planning and sometimes you go to the meeting point and then go home having missed each other because you misunderstood the exact location.

At least people learned the importance of giving good descriptions the first time in real life.

Too much these days feels like people just leave a message prompt and expect you to return contact and fill in all of their blanks.

E.g. my telephone messages will specify who I am, why I’m calling, what I’m looking for, when to contact me and my phone number (always twice!).

Dunno if others were any better in the past, or if I’m bitter about forums that cater to less advanced users that chronically leave out critical details.

i really do, i mainly miss:

* people not being able to contact me 24/7

* not knowing what is going on in the world all the time (this i miss the most)

* things being local

* way less crap people used to own

people not being able to contact me 24/7

You can still have that! I have it. Literally cannot remember the last time I answered the phone :)

Yeah, that's at least partially a social problem or how you relate to people and tech, not a tech problem per se. You have to manage your relationships to both people and tech.

The aspect 'zulgan is probably missing is that back then, you didn't have to manage this at all, as it was not a possibility. A problem not existing in the first place beats being good at dealing with it.

That line of thinking implicitly assumes no upside to being capable of connecting at will, 24/7.

I live in a small town with a surprising amount of 24 hour service. I'm not obligated to run off to the store every night at 2am just because I can, but I sure as hell appreciate being able to do so when I need to or want to.

There are upsides to our current ability to connect. Acting like "simply not having that problem is better" amounts to throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

Back then the expectations were different. So if you didn’t want to be reachable at all times, there was less relationship management involved.

I was an adult in the nineties. I was subject to vastly more expectation to keep in touch and be available and call people than I am currently.

Development was more approachable for the newcomer, because there were fewer choices and tooling was less mature. Obviously professionals are better off now, but as a newbie in the 90s it was pretty amazing to develop a website on Notepad and be one of the only people you knew who had a web presence. That and all the BASIC platforms (QBASIC, Commodore, etc) allowed you to build simple text-based games at a time when text-based games weren't uncommon. It felt like with just a little bit of practice you could run with the pros; not necessarily true, but it was really encouraging.

I feel pity for people entering development now. The industry must seem like this colossal, endlessly complex, ever-changing mess filled with experts who know 1000x more than you ever will. There's an overwhelming amount of information, and there's so many partially overlapping disciplines that it's easy to feel lost.

In 1981, Electric Light Orchestra wrote about remembering the good old 1980's.... https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZXBiPY8wDT0

Here's the lyrics:

Remember the good old 1980's

When things were so uncomplicated

I wish I could go back there again

And everything could be the same


It's a refrain as old as time.

Yes and no.

I do miss how web development/software engineering was simpler in the 90s, since it felt like it was a lot more accessible when you didn't have all these JavaScript frameworks to learn, CSS tricks to master, and programming languages to mess around with. Also felt like standards were a lot lower in general online back then, so non designers could create comparatively decent looking sites/apps and people weren't so fussy about UX design/usability in general.

And I definitely enjoyed the simplicity of your typical video game back then too. No DLC, no pay to win, no microtransactions, no lootboxes, you just bought a game, and everything on the disc/cart was yours to play. Yeah game design wasn't quite as polished back then, but there were plenty of great games to enjoy none the less, and when they were good, they just worked.

Additionally, I guess the world felt simpler in its optimism too. The Soviet Union had just fell, the internet was new and exciting and the War on Terror hadn't started. Everyone felt like things were getting better, and in Western countries, people's rights were arguably at their most respected. It wasn't perfect by any means, and some rights still needed to be fought for, but it felt peaceful.

Still, I don't miss all of it. Today's tech is better. Science has obviously advanced and moved on. Many sporting achievements happened between the 90s and today. Thousands or even millions of great works of fiction got released, and many things considered impossible happened too.

So it depends really.

Probably for the reasons you mentioned, I have a tradition of playing SimCity2000 every time I’m on a flight, and never anytime else.

It’ll be the same experience, every time, and it’ll never break.

Only thing I really miss, memorizing phone numbers and just somehow always knowing where all my friends were no matter what. We could always find each other in town because we just... knew. Now if I go with friends to a store, I have to text them to find out where they are. And I miss having such a good memory on something practical, at the time, as phone numbers. You had everyone’s number in your head, pizza, most of their work numbers, etc.


And I was a teenager in the 90s, peak nostalgia, but the answer is still no.

The 90s weren't that simpler, we just had different problems. In fact, I have a bit of trouble finding things that really were simpler from a personal perspective.

The one thing I can think of is security. We didn't have security checks everywhere, kids could do plenty of "dangerous" things, we didn't see pedophiles everywhere etc... And I kind of miss it. But it may just be the result of living in a safer society: human lives are becoming incredibly valuable, resulting in over-protection.

Other than that, think about how simpler internet made things. Want to buy something unusual: buy it online with a few clicks. Access to knowledge is almost limitless. I don't miss going to the bookstore at the other side of the town, noticing that the book I wanted isn't available, take an order, and come back 2 weeks later to pick it up. All these forgotten details were really annoying thinking back.

Another example: cars. Cars used to be mechanically simpler, which was great for the DIY types. But modern cars are so much more reliable. Smoking cars on the curb were a much more common sight back them. So maybe cars were simpler to repair, but not having to repair make life much simpler.

Now about computers. Sure computers were simpler under the hood. Understanding a CPU and assembly was comparatively easy back then. But nowadays, we have abstraction layers that make computers more accessible at every level. We just shifted a few layers up. Truth is, even oldschool computers hid a lot of complexity regarding the electronics inside it that we, as kids, didn't realize and older people did.

The cars are more complicated, but if you drive something common, you can always find a video for the common failure modes.

The manufacturers have sure done what they can to eliminate any empty spaces though.

I think culture used to be more united. There were significant limitations in the channels for producing and consuming culture.

Used to be, to get people to read your writing, you had to go through either the effort of printing and distribution, or you had to submit to some editorial selection and review. Then the only channel people had to consume it was to get a physical print of it.

Now anyone can write anything and anyone can read it. The channels of culture have exploded to infinity. This has caused culture to be fractured.

Used to be that most people watched what was on tv, read what's in the paper, and listened to what's in the radio. This formed a foundation of shared cultural experience. It's more varied and accessible compared to centuries of only oral tradition and limited printing, but compared to today, pretty much everyone experienced the same culture.

Today it feels like culture has fractured. Even members of the same household might not watch, read, or listen to the same things. The physical proximity no longer guarantees any shared culture.

Now if you want to enjoy culture in a group, you must either find it online, or you must be a cultural advocate for whatever your views or media are and build a community around you.

Game of Thrones has been one of the most popular TV shows at all time, yet almost no one has found it just by flicking through the TV in that time slot. Game of Thrones was advocated for by superfans.

Although there are certainly advantages to access any type of culture we want, it's definitely more complex. I can't just talk to someone about sports, the show last night, or the new hit song. Because even though I might live or work with someone, first I have to figure our the cultural choice they've been making.

To be fair, the monoculture was almost exclusively white, Western, Judeo-Christian approved media. It created a giant tidal wave of conformity on which progress rose, but it drowned out a lot of other voices.

Always tradeoffs.

Perhaps where you lived. I experienced this fracturing of culture in a non-white, non-western, non-Christian country. I think it is a global effect.

I agree that the centralization of culture allowed the people in power to suppress diversity and control the cultural narrative. But now there is no longer a cultural narrative at all. It is too fractures to make any holistic sense.

Not so much the simplicity as the idea that if someone wanted to spy on me, they actually had to work at it.

One big academia/industry thing about the early '90s is that CS students and business students were very different.

Not that either category were bad people, but they thought and acted differently, and I'd say that diversity turned out to be more important than I realized at the time.

It seems rare to me that software is carefully engineered and thought out in advance anymore. There's a "move fast and break things" and "worse is better" attitude where designing things carefully is largely seen as a waste of time. Why bother when there's a hundred "good enough" solutions that you can glue together and hardware is so powerful you figure that it won't matter.

What I'm saying is that there's an emergent complexity from bolting together a ton of things together in ways that work "well enough." Things that are working well out of the scope in which they were originally engineered... or things that just carry a ton of baggage with them. This creates complexity.

I’m not yet in my 40s but can postulate that the 90s was not simpler from a tech perspective let me explain.

1. Today we have google in the 90s we had mailing lists . It is much easier to use google than it is to construct a well thought out question.

2. At the start of the 90s we had very little access to mobile phones. We had no uber. Imagine landing at an airport and having to use a pay phone- or calling collect. This is much more complex and difficult then what you can do today with a smart phone.

3. Say you wanted to build a website. There was no simple answer or Ruby on Rails to make give you a right way to approach it. You had to figure it out without google. For reference lookup corba. Software engineering was definitely not simpler

Yes, including analog television. The new television system is stupid and is no good.

Now we have many bad thing such as: the mess being made of WWW (they try to put everything in there, even though many things are better without), complicated computer design with anti-features and other stupid stuff, blu-ray movies, DMCA, USB, etc. Much of that stuff they did not have so much in the nineties.

Of course, we do have good stuff now too, not only the bad stuff. Many improvements are made, but stuff is also made worse stuff too.

I miss the Internet. Like the culture of forums, geocities, all that. It does feel like we're getting lamer. I even miss the blink tag, even though I hated it at the time.

Yes, very much (I'm 41). The running joke with my friends is that my tag line should be "I miss the 90s".

Some things were much better then than today, for example:

* Children and adolescents had freedom that seems to have been lost today. However, I think that a young person's virtual self extends far out into the aether compared to Gen X.

* The lack of cynicism today concerns me. There are so many very.bad.things happening in the world that I find blind optimism offensive. I just read that 40% of the world's species have gone extinct in 40 years. It doesn't matter if that's precisely true - what matters is that the order of magnitude is likely accurate, and that humans only have about one more generation before Earth's wildlife can only be seen in museums.

* Politics was better. Everything since 9/11 has been a blind alley on the fractal of possibilities. Young people maybe aren't aware that the world wasn't always this... dystopic.

* One thing was worse - weed was illegal everywhere except like, Amsterdam.

* Video games were better. But the quality was partially due to suspension of disbelief and using one's imagination.

* Grunge/alternative was a revelation that can't be expressed in words or replicated. But, around 2013 I noticed a similar cultural revolution, the rise/return of the Burning Man sentiment and a reconnection with creation via psychedelic drugs which seems to be changing the world like a mix between 60s hedonism and cyperpunk. YOLO might be the only thing Gen X truly envies about today hahah.

* Basement parties, raves, skate and punk culture, underground internet geekdom. Vans. Airwalks. Corduroy jeans. All better, but somewhat make-believe.

* Web metaphors were better (declarative and data-driven programming, UNIX theology). Programming languages like C++ and platforms like Windows set us back at least 10, maybe 20 years. But they were FUN.

I knew a guy from my parents' generation when I was growing up who wore Hawaiian shirts everywhere and would never leave the year 1985. Now I am him, forever trapped between the years 1992-1999 like a character in The Matrix. So while I could go on forever, I'll stop here.

Edit: somehow I left out music. Listen to Green Day or Stone Temple Pilots or Alice in Chains chronologically and you might if you're lucky get the slightest glimpse into what it was like to watch Beavis and Butthead in your friend's trailer home before going out to ride BMX in the gravel pits and then coming home and playing Nintendo until 4 in the morning, staying up all night and then going to a party the next night and getting a ride home with random girls like on Dazed and Confused. I assume all that is even better today (what with your Uber and Tinder), but the shear bleakness and transcendental euphoria that the future was arriving before your eyes and nobody older than 30 knows it yet has perhaps diminished.

The lack of cynicism today concerns me

Interesting. I’m 6 years your junior and quite vividly remember the optimism of the 90’s but I find myself equally...erm...annoyed with the volume of cynicism now and kind of wish for a more optimistic vox politic.

And that statement alone comes with all sorts of caveats and qualifiers that would end up with this post being several volumes long just to point out “I recognize the challenges of both eras; today and yesterday but I’m sticking by the argument as delivered because reasons”.

In fact I had a quite literal shower though this afternoon after a jog through my neighborhood “I wonder if it’s possible to plot out the empowerment/cynicism index across generations and what that system of measurement would look like”

It’s fun to ponder.

Until it isn’t.

That’s not a value judgement. That just an opinionated observation.

Unfortunately I can't take the writing of someone that suggests people listen to Stone Temple Pilots seriously.

I don't think the 90s were any simpler, but I do miss some things.

Popular music was IMHO objectively better even in a pure composition sense and was much more interesting.

I also miss 90s cyberculture. There was a more genuine ethos of inventing and exploring and people would never have tolerated today's lockdown and surveillance stuff. I'm amazed at how the mobile revolution boiled that frog.

> IMHO objectively

I don't think that's legal, my guy.

It’s so weird to me that more than half the answers here focus primarily on computing and programming. I mean, this is a tech-oriented community, but surely our experiences of the 90s and of the present day weren’t limited to tech.

Things we have now that I would never want to be without:

- Amazing browser debugging tools - Source Maps - Typescript - VSCode w/ Liveshare - Mostly standardized CSS - Automated build tools

These are solutions to problems we had in the past.

Make has been around far longer then you think.

Make, as 'wbl mentioned, already existed; VSCode w/ Liveshare is probably new; rest of those are solutions to problems that didn't even exist in 90s, and were only introduced in the 2000s.

Yes. Simplicity, getting piercings, tribal tattoos, singing about saving the planet and forming bands.


Usable bicyles at reasonable price points with longer lasting parts. Nowadays it seems like almost exclusively fashion driven, with parts wearing out fast, even if they are expensive. CONSUME MORE!

Can I suggest that "90s simplicity" is an oxymoron?

I was alive back then, and I've always been under the impression that the nineties were extremely fast paced and increasingly complicated.

I’m not sure what you mean by simplicity. Detecting whether your browser’s JavaScript uses document.layers vs document.all?

For the first part of the 90s we still had Commodore. Now they’ve been airbrushed from history by those left.

No one has airbrushed Commodore from history. The company went away. Many of us learned on the C64 and moved on. You make it sound like there's some conspiracy against them.

90s? I miss the late 70s / early 80s. The world before personal computers was better in many ways.

You mean when computers ran at MHz speed as opposed to GHz?

It took a lot more work to get a decent user experience.

But did it? Perceived speed has remained steady, using a computer in the 80s was not that different from today, only a lot less powerful. The UI for software like Photoshop is essentially the same 30 years later. VisiCalc and Lotus 123 were not that much slower than GDocs today. And we still have a hard time beating input latency from an Apple II: https://danluu.com/input-lag/

I have to disagree. The current state of computing is a disgraceful state, squandering multiple GHz of compute power to give worse performance than much software from the 386 era. It might be marginally more featureful, but those gains don't account for the huge amount of bloat and waste. And in practice, much of the software I used in that era had was both more featureful and more powerful than the equivalents today, which have been progressively dumbed down pandering to mobile users.

Low tens of MHz and low memory required careful and thoughtful design to make optimal use of the available resources and provide an interface with minimal latency. Today, it's wasted with gleeful abandon.

The 80s were even better

I miss not worrying about the earth dying.

If it helps any, the earth is probably not dying. There have been mass extinctions, climate change, etc before.

After we cut our own throat as a species, Mother Nature will deal herself a new hand and continue her game of solitaire without us.

I have no doubt it's not the end of life on earth - the earth will recover and life will continue for another 3 or 4 billion years, probably.

I'm more concerned about the short term - i.e. what will happen to us and our children and future generations.

I'm sorry this weighs on you.

FWIW: https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=19838229#19843507

> I miss not worrying about the earth dying.

Acid rain, hole in the ozone layer, Chernobyl radiation legacy, global deforestation, overfishing, air pollution; we had plenty of environmental worries in the 90s

simplicity of what? getting any kind of information was ecruciatingly hard until broadband became available. There were wars, politics, same or worse than today's (yugoslav wars, gulf wars, palestine). You can have a roadtrip nowadays easily (simplicity), try that in the 90s. I think you have it backwards, today is simpler. I mean just catching up with the music genres of the 90s was an arduous task!

Yes. This is something I have given a lot of thought to. I mean, A LOT.

Before about, 1996-- (I'm estimating)-- before network connectivity was the norm-- I understood how every processor in every system I dealt with worked. Two things happened in the mid to late 90s.

First-- an explosion of silicon. The days of understanding how the system worked, in its entirety, were over. I had a copy of "80386 systems designers guide", and I can't remember the name- but the Michael Abrash's guide to VGA video cards and a PC Interrupts were all that were needed to master computer architecture. If you were super fancy you understood the Pentium math extensions (whose names I cannot recall), that let you do a crossbar in a few cycles, and you understood how common chips like the 16550 worked, which is an addendum to PC Interrupts if I recall.

Second, and this is the key thing, technology started working AGAINST us. As complexity exploded, so did network connectivity. We had this era in which Operating Systems complexity exploded (win95), silicon complexity exploded, and connectivity exploded. The thing about connectivity is this-- that's when our computers went from isolated things to these things that are always online-- they started working against us. They could now talk to other computers, other people, and that changed computing fundamentally.

Computers went from these things that were our helpmates to our masters. This is what I lament the most. I don't miss bit-banging, assembly programming (well, a little). I fudging love Ruby/Python, as opposed to C++ being considered "High Level." I love that I can buy a computer for 35$ (RPI) that is fantastic. RPi's are so cheap I employ half a dozen just to run my 3d printers (yes I have a problem). But I do so much not miss being scared of my computer. Miss being scared of the ne5work. I miss the sense of wonder at what a computer could be or do. You have to understand technology as it exists now, is beyond my wildest dreams. I watched Star Trek TNG as a child and the devices we have now, legitimately have exceeded my wildest dreams. The simplest cell phone now has as much computational power as every computer combined at the time I graduated high school.

But, I do miss simplicity. So much so, I've been considering writing an NES or Sega game; I'm precisely 40 years old, and I've finally come to understand that art and constraints are intimately connected. That they press on each other, and neither is possible without each other.

I have so few restraints on modern systems that I... am constrained. I miss the constraints of my earlier years that were, in fact, my freedom. I miss software that shipped and worked on the first day. I, like everyone, miss my childhood. Because the universe is an explosion of complexity-- and when we look back, we will always feel like things were simpler-- because they god damned actually were.

Like when the 'off' button meant 'off'? Yeah, I do.

The switch that completely isolated power from your pc. Luckily that still exists at the wall .... for now.

Phones are another story.

Not if your PC is a laptop, and has a battery. You can tell it to go to sleep, and, sometime later, Windows 10 will wake it up and sneak up an update on you (with a complimentary restart included).

I miss buttons in general.

My appartment has shared laundry facilities. It finally died, but I still miss the previous laundry machine, which had these big physical buttons that had this satisfying clock when you pushed them in.

The more recent but quaint days of desktop programs where clicking on [x] would actually close the program.

Recently I built a tube stereo amplifier kit and speakers. Bought an old fashioned CD player for it. Just put in a CD and push play. No screwing around with apps, streaming, etc.

As a teenager in the late 80’s, you knew where your friends were on the weekends, but we didn’t have cell phones. You could find a party in a remote part of the county, but no one had a GPS.

Computing was also fun, in the days of BBS and pre-WWW Internet.

A world dominated by effen Windoze? How could I miss that? I sure as heck miss the simplicity of my Amiga, if we are talking the 90s, but that's about it in terms of simplicity.

All other aspects of "90s simplicity" sucked.

Table based web layouts? Without the "complication" of CSS? I sure miss that. Calling the family landline and hoping her "complicated" father doesn't answer the phone? Fuck yeah, I miss that. Having to play cool with the artsy-fartsy kids to get the CD with the new fonts? Sure, I miss that as well. The simplicity of "obtaining" Emacs for the Mac in the 90s! Hell yes! I miss that simplicity. And last but not least, pixel pr0n, animated GIFs. Yeah, I miss the simplicity of the 90s. Fuck Micro$oft, remember that one? Oh do I miss that. And the "web crawlers" don't forget thet simplicity to submit your site to more than 100 search engines!

The AOL CD, simply flip it away! Enviromentalism was still a European thing, or so, thought the European Gen X. Kurt Cobain didn't comit suicide and fuck Atari.

Short answer: "No."

My SEO consultancy can handle that. We'll submit your site to hundreds of the top search engines and web directories.

Cool, but how did you find out my email address?

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