Sure, when Google was new and had relatively low traffic and relatively few people were trying to game it and the web was orders of magnitude smaller than it is today (largely because Google itself was a force that made the web much larger) the SERPs were different. Arguably better. But we can't go back there. Time marches on.
If it were easy to go back there Google would have more effective competitors.
You can try to simulate the old days by creating a smaller network of trusted friends or sources and only following links from them. This is a hot strategy now; we call it "social networking". But I wouldn't assume that social networks, even those limited to your immediate family, are immune to commercial "SEO". Experience suggests otherwise. Just wait until a family member starts shilling for Amway or Cutco, or (less annoyingly) your teenaged nephew comes to your house selling band candy or magazines.