In the past three decades, the United States has seen staggering technological changes. In 1984, just 8 percent of households had a personal computer, the World Wide Web was still five years away, and cell phones were enormous. Americans born that year are only 33 years old.
Here’s how some key parts of our technological lives have shifted, split loosely into early, middle and current stages.
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*Tape market share from before 1999 does not including competing pre-DVD formats like LaserDisc.
Blockbuster isn’t quite dead yet — as of April there were at least 10 U.S. locations still in operation, mostly in Alaska. But the era of physical videos is on its way out. Children today may never know the swelling music of a DVD menu that’s looped back to the beginning. And they certainly will never have to rewind a VHS tape.
Be kind! The VHS Rewind Simulator.
Press and hold the button to rewind the movie
But this is just one slice of how home entertainment has changed over the past 30 years. Thanks to plummeting prices, most Americans now own (large!) HD TVs that were once reserved for the very wealthy. During the same era, cable overtook network television in profitability and prestige. Both are now threatened by the twin specters of cord-cutting and streaming.
*Slow internet is the difference between the share of Americans that reported to Pew that they used the internet at all, and the share that reported they had home broadband. It includes Americans who use broadband internet outside of their home.
Twenty years ago the Internet was still mostly for play — Geocities was one of the most popular sites on the Web. And it was slow! Dial-up —which uses pre-existing telephone lines to connect to the Internet — was the primary internet technology throughout the 90s, until faster Broadband services began to take hold. Dial-up had a max speed of 56 kilobits per second, and could be interrupted by an incoming phone call.
How long does it take to download a 1MB photo?
For those that prefer the simpler times, there’s always the Space Jam website, untouched since 1996. For an even purer experience, without modern scourges like “images,” you can look at the first website published to the World Wide Web, or just play the sound.
Around 1985, vinyl records gave way to tapes, which gave way to CDs, which gave way to digital files. And the switch to digital has really been a two-parter: First came mp3 collections where people still bought actual albums, then came the rise of streaming services that do away with the concept of “owning” music altogether.
The merits of different music formats are widely debated. But things have definitely gotten better for joggers.
How long will the music last?
How long you could jog without stopping while listening to each player.
Music technologies have a funny way of not staying dead. Vinyl sales have been creeping upward in recent years, and even cassettes are supposedly making a comeback.
While the first mobile phone call was made in 1973, it took the technology a while to reach the masses. In the late ’80s, cellphones were still an extravagance, notably used by Gordon Gecko in 1987’s “Wall Street.”
30+ years of mobile phone design
A decade a half later, Nokia and other manufacturers had developed much cheaper models. In particular, the nearly indestructible Nokia 3310 — affectionately known as the “brick” — has a special place in U.S. mobile history as the first cell phone for many younger Americans.
Where this data came from
Music sales figures from 1995 to present are from the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) U.S. sales database.
Home entertainment spending by format from 1999-2010 is from the Digital Entertainment Group (DEG) 2010 year-end home entertainment report, and figures from 2011-2016 are from individual DEG year-end reports. Data from 1997 and 1998 are extrapolated based on DVD player sales data from a 2005 DEG report. Industry-wide sales data is not available from 1985-1997. While tapes were dominant over DVDs during that span (DVDs were invented in 1995) we aren’t sure of tapes’ precise market share because of competing but less popular technologies such as LaserDisc.
Cellphone usage statistics for 2002-2016 are from the Pew Research Center Mobile Fact Sheet. Statistics for 2000 are from the Web at 25 Pew series — 2001 and 2003 percentages are interpolated. A single figure for cell usage was found by averaging all surveys that took place in the same year. Cellphone usage before 2000 is estimated by comparing the Pew data series with the trend in total U.S. cellphone subscriptions back to 1985, from the 2009 CTIA Annual Wireless Survey. Smartphone percentages are estimated by comparing cellphone usage to smartphone market penetration from 2005 to 2016, based on comScore data.
Internet and broadband usage from 2000 to 2016 from the Pew Internet/Broadband Fact Sheet. A single figure for broadband usage was found by averaging all surveys that took place in the same year. Internet usage from 1996-1998 is from Pew’s ‟The Internet Circa 1998” publication, 1995 is from ‟How the internet has woven itself into American life.” Internet usage for 1999 and broadband usage for 2014 are interpolated. Internet usage before 1995 is extrapolated based on the trend in Internet usage growth from 1995-1998. Poll results have been smoothed.
Highest grossing movies for each year from the Numbers. Top selling records for each year from Billboard. Top websites of each year from comScore/Media Metrix.
Rewind button by krishna from The Noun Project. Abbreviated video of Say Anything originally from Reddit, by user bacondropped. Gifs via giphy.
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