As we wade into a new decade, some people believe, as always, that everything's getting worse and that everything used to be so much better. I disagree. For instance, you can't convince me that any era before the advent of indoor plumbing was better than this one. We romanticize the past because we survived it – we gloss over the ugly bits and dwell on the good ones. Now, I can be as nostalgic as the next guy, even for clumsy, time-consuming things like rotary phones, 35mm photography, waiting in line for movies, etc. But while they had their charms as well as their drawbacks, a lot of other stuff from "the good old days" was just plain awful. Take these nine examples from my own lifetime:
- Smog. Lately I've been hearing baby boomers yearn for California's "Golden Age" – that is, any time before the 1980s. Memories cherry-pick a past filled with polite, elegant people, streets devoid of homeless folks and trash, and of course those beautiful old cars. But those beautiful old cars belched out tons of toxic emissions. It wasn't just Los Angeles but even my quiet hometown of Cupertino which experienced frequent "smog alerts", where you were warned not to even go outside. California still has plenty of smog, alas, but it's nowhere near as thick, or as pervasive, as it was in my youth.
- Smoking in bars, clubs, etc. Indoor smog! Smoke may lend bars a certain visual ambience, but otherwise? Yuck. I never smoked, yet I recall those 1990s nights spent out with friends, where my clothes would reek so much that I'd have to stick them in another room after I got home. And I'm old enough to remember when people regularly smoked in restaurants, too. (This is still allowed in 12 states and many countries.) I don't miss any of this. Not the stink, not the eye-burning, not the throat-singeing, not the cancer-causing, nothing.
- Malathion. The Mediterranean fruit fly descended en masse upon California in 1980-82, destroying thousands of acres of crops. To battle the infestation, the government dispatched helicopters to spray over 1,400 square miles – including much of the heavily-populated Bay Area – with malathion, a strong pesticide. (Parts of LA, too.) When you heard the sinister sound of copters approaching your neighborhood, you ran indoors so you didn't get sick from the spray. The medfly keeps coming back, but the state now controls the infestation with sterile medflies.
- Cathode ray tube television sets. You knew these as regular old "TVs", before flat LCD screens came around. They offered poor resolution, a low range of colors and values, glare-prone glass screens, and burdensome size and weight. Landfills are filled with them – and with old computer monitors as well. Nossir, there's nothing good about CRTs. Too bad the industry couldn't have harnessed flatscreen technology decades earlier.
- Videotapes. I retain a mild fondness for audio cassettes, for reasons I don't fully understand. (Their tininess? Their iconic design?) But while videotapes made it easy to record something off TV and watch it later, that was their only selling point – and obviously this process is even easier with today's DVRs. VHS tapes were clunky, had terrible image quality that only degraded with use, and who among us took pleasure in all that fast-forwarding and rewinding? Once VHS was phased out, millions upon millions of tapes became garbage – almost totally non-recyclable garbage. Such a waste.
- The Thomas Guide. Anyone who lived in Los Angeles in the 1990s remembers this. In the pre-GPS era, the Thomas Guide was a thick, spiral-bound book of local roadmaps that you kept in your car. Everyone I knew had one – except me. I hated the Thomas Guide. Here's why: each page was only 8.5 by 11 inches, and thus could only fit so much map. So to follow a 5-mile route down, say, Wilshire Boulevard, you'd have to flip from page 16 to page 45 to page 28 to page 79 and try to find Wilshire on each page. It was incredibly user-unfriendly. I preferred fold-out maps, where I could trace my entire route on one page or even fold the map around said route. The Thomas Guide was bulky and expensive, yet many loved it. Not me!
- Movies projected on planes. Remember air travel when you didn't have a personal LCD monitor in front of your seat, and for even long-distance flights, the only entertainment was one or two movies projected onto the front wall of the economy cabin – later supplemented by discolored CRT TVs that popped out from the ceiling every fifth row? Naturally, these movies were scrubbed of all "mature" content, since everyone from 1 to 100 had to watch the same thing. I recall my first unedited film on my own private screen. It was Mulholland Drive, on Virgin Atlantic, in 2002. The airline industry has never looked back.
- Disposable flashbulbs. Major kudos to whoever figured out how to design a camera flash that didn't have to be replaced after every photo. In the very old days, photographers had to employ a flash the size of a regular lightbulb, then chuck it – scorching hot – after just one picture. In my childhood, we had flashcubes, which shrunk down the technology to four flashes per cube. But you still had to throw it away after that. Then came flipflash, which vertically stacked up 10 tiny flashbulbs – what a dream! (Slightly off-topic: I also hold no nostalgia for Adobe Flash.)
- Non-stadium seating in cinemas. It took decades for movie theater designers to embrace what, in Ancient Greece, was the norm: stadium seating, where you could see over whoever was sitting in front of you without having to strain your neck. Before the 21st century brought stadium seating to the multiplex, going to the movies meant having some stranger's big fat head blocking the lower third of your view of the screen, thanks to the cramped rows and an only barely sloping floor. How anyone could read subtitled films in those days eludes me.