It started as a brief Twitter thread, how living in a townhouse complex during COVID-19 is a lot like being back in residence at university. You live with people 24/7 with strange habits and routines and varying degrees of commitment to the work they have to do. And there aren’t enough bathrooms. People are up and out around you at all hours trying to avoid each other. Some of us are drinking too much. My room has become the place where I sleep and where I work and where I watch TV and where I read and and and…
Oh, and it reeks of pot everywhere.
Another way is that my insomnia has come back with a vengeance. I lay in bed, legs cramping (because that’s what happens when I lie in bed for too long without falling asleep), unable to sleep. I remembered that feeling from when I was an undergraduate, and how I would get up and play Solitaire on my computer until I couldn’t see the monitor I was finally so tired. Or later how I would get up and go by myself to the bar where I was a regular and just dance, trying to tire myself out enough, trying to escape my own head.
I could probably re-create Les Marches from memory in Minecraft if I tried (or knew how). I spent so many nights there, I remember how it looked, how it felt, how it smelled. The blast of hot, smoky, sweaty air when you would come in from the cold in the winter. The oppressively humid air that would great you in the summer. The corner by the DJ booth where we would always congregate, our spot. The exposed pipes. The wood floors. The brick walls.
And so then I got to thinking, what if all of this had happened in the mid- to late-1990s? What if instead of our freshmen being sent home mid-semester, we had been sent home mid-semester? What if this had happened when Gen-X was still young and/or in college?
I think we all forget just how far technology came in the 1990s. I started high school in 1989, graduated in 1994, started university is 1996 (with two years of CEGEP in between), then started my PhD in 2001. In that time, we went from a C64 to an IBM running MS-DOS to Windows to dial-up to when I arrived at university, we had “high-speed” (which I think was fiber optic?) and Windows ’95. When I started my PhD, people were more regularly owning cell phones and my institution was using WebCT as their LMS.
In a decade we went from not knowing or being able to connect to the Internet to having it and expecting it just about everywhere we set up our computers, even if it was still largely dial-up. We went from having to carry a quarter with us everywhere to assuming at least one or more of your friends would have a cell phone (as long as you promised that the call wasn’t going to take long or was after a certain time of day, given the whole limited minutes thing).
All of this to say is that we almost kinda sorta had the infrastructure to move our learning and working at a distance. But I don’t think we would have. I think the semester would have been “read and mail in the final exam” because people were less worried about cheating from home without access to the library and the Internet not being tremendously useful for easy cheating yet. We would see the great faculty consternation over having to use email (lol yes there was a time when that’s what faculty complained about or refused to use), but ultimately, they would just email basic text instructions, shrug our shoulders, and make the best of it.
Working, well, working would be an entirely different matter. Would companies pay to have a second line put into houses, one for calls and one for Internet? Would they have paid for the Internet, which in those days wasn’t a given for a household to have. Montreal in the mid- to-late 1990s was the great tech/telecommunications boom, the first tech bubble, and these tech companies were throwing money at employees so it seems possible if not probable that a place like Nortel would have moved heaven and earth to keep the work going.
Except, of course, that this first tech boom was probably still more focused on hardware than software. We were still making things locally, physical tech objects, which would have been difficult to accomplish with social distancing. But people would be clamoring for infrastructure that wasn’t quite there yet, meaning that certain things that aren’t considered essential services now would have been in order to keep things running.
We would have delivery service, but we’d have to order by phone and pay…by cash? Canada has an interesting history of electronic payments, with Interac becoming widespread starting in 1996. We could use our debit cards to pay for things automatically using the Interac system. We would go to the States and be like, I can’t use my debit card? What? Why the hell are people still writing checks? So I would think that something like Interac would have either a) been developed a lot sooner or b) grown and innovated (sigh) a lot faster, and definitely adapted elsewhere (like here in the States) a lot faster.
We wouldn’t have the out-pouring of creative videos and music and easily shareable art. Is this pre- or post-Napster, which relied on students on campus with reliable, relatively high-speed internet? Maybe Napster comes sooner, maybe we figure out how to compress audio sooner. There would definitely be a boom in writing and art created for and with Web 1.0 technology, with writing on a web quickly losing the stigma it once had, with people looking to connect and share and record and create in whatever ways available to them now, without the physical infrastructure necessary to press a CD or cassette or to order them efficiently and distribute. So much was still about the store.
I imagine hyper-local networks emerging, connected by phone and (lol) BBS and listservs. DIY and sharing cultures, as you couldn’t just go to Amazon and buy blank tapes or ‘zine supplies. I remember during that time my friends and I hacking a friend’s dad’s old-school stereo, the kind that took up a whole wall, and turned it into make-shift recording equipment. But this was still predicated on us being able to get together in one place to record. Sending tapes, having someone, one person, who had the equipment and the knowledge, mixing and remixing, then distributing by mail.
Would video stores have been an essential service?
Do we see Blockbuster beating Netflix to the punch offering mail-order VHS rentals, via catalogue, much like the CD clubs where you would get fliers and pay a penny for 12 cassette or 8 CDs? Gosh, the explosion of DIY VHS movies, crudely shot and edited, or maybe the old 8mm would be brushed off and we could all send our parts, coordinated by email or BBS, to one person to edit and then distribute.
The equipment needed though. Now we all have what we need on our computers and our phones/tablets. Everything would have been so slow. At the time 6-8 weeks was the norm for delivery wait times. “Allow 6-8 weeks for delivery” on all those infomercials selling Time/Life collections and compilations.
And what would a post-pandemic “Friends” or (shudder) “Seinfeld” look like?
What would this have done to the “War on Drugs”? Would we have decriminalized soon? Or cracked down harder? Or just completely ignored it as perhaps it would have stayed localized in places we didn’t care enough about in the first place?
Imagine if we had to wait 6-8 weeks for our booze delivery…
Everything would have been so much slower. How do you coordinate efforts, share data to find a cure when everything is still so slow? The numbers now say maybe up to two years (!!!!) today with super-computers and AI and the ability to share unprecedented amounts of data and research almost instantaneously, to communicate and collaborate in real time. Would it be like the AIDS crisis, not in the governments indifference to it, but in the slow-moving nature of medical research given the infrastructure at the time?
But given that, would we have shut down at all? How fast would be have been able to recognize and identify the virus, realize that people were dying from not-flu? What would have the critical mass been? Would we have even learned what was going on in China (answer: nope, not at all). Not through any maliciousness, would we have had enough knowledge to shut everything down?
And, would we have tolerated it then? The isolation would have been even more acute given the limited infrastructure, the economy even more fragile. Not that the economy is the most important element, but it isn’t unimportant. If no one, or only a small few could work from home, with everyone else losing their jobs…
But then again, we would have had to have known and understood the risk, and it isn’t clear to me that we would have been able to make sense of it, to react accordingly. I remember being vaguely scared of AIDS (again, FOR EXAMPLE BUT CERTAINLY NOT PERFECT) but then not knowing what to do (other than another reason to be terrified of having sex), you just keep going.
So, yeah, COVID-19 in the 1990s. What if.
Edit: I shared this at work and it was pointed out to me that I completely took for granted that Canada has universal healthcare, so that wasn’t even an issue I thought about bringing up. Would that mean that we would now already have universal healthcare here in the States now too if this had happened in the mid-1990s?