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1980s v 2020s: How technology has changed our lives


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When you're young, it seems impossible the items you own and experiences you now have will ever seem as outdated as casting your mind back, say, 30 to 40 years ago does today.

But, youthful folk, rest assured you will one day be telling your children about how in your day you had to struggle along with an archaic iPhone 12 Pro or watch grainy images on a 4K television set.

How things have changed...
How things have changed...

So as 2021 settles in, let's turn back the clock to the 1980s and remind ourselves how things once were as a guide to just how much technology has fuelled the changes.

The Cinema

Pre-pandemic, a trip to the cinema, for the majority of us, involved a jaunt to an all-singing, all-dancing multiplex.

There, you'd collect your internet-booked tickets, watch slick trailers on screens in the foyer and, if you fancied it, upgrade your ticket to 'VIP' and perch in front of the silver screen in a big comfy seat with ample leg room and cup holders for your popcorn, vat of watered-down cola and tub of premium fancy ice cream. And if you really want to push the boat out you can even enjoy the jumbo screen of Imax at Bluewater. A pleasant - albeit often expensive - experience.

Compare that with how things once were.

Today's cinema experience is a far more comfortable - albeit more expensive - night out
Today's cinema experience is a far more comfortable - albeit more expensive - night out

To secure your ticket required patience. You couldn't pre-book and so to guarantee your ticket involved the art of queuing. And for the big movies, that could mean getting in line early - often in weather not best suited to standing around. The sight of people snaking along outside cinema entrances was commonplace. In Tunbridge Wells, a well-placed newsagent next door to the ABC Cinema must have made a pretty penny from hungry and thirsty folk desperate to get a seat. And, given even the biggest cinemas then would boast a maximum of three screens, it was a necessity. Miss it and you'd have to wait for the following evening - this was not the era of back-to-back screenings.

By the time you reached the kiosk, your paper ticket with the relevant screen number would chunk out of those old-style machines built into the desk and you'd make your way through the modest foyer and have a look at the photo cards stuck on the wall to see what upcoming films looked like they may be worth the effort. Your imagination was relied upon to do the rest.

When in, your choice of seats extended to sitting in the smoking or non-smoking area. Something of a moot point, more often than not, as the smell of smoke would drift across the auditorium anyway. In Ashford, the old flea pit - long-since knocked down to make way for a car park for the international station - would once have seats which would rise and fall gently as people walked down the aisle and stood on the other end of the floorboard it was attached to.

Once Pearl and Dean had bah-bah-bah-bahed its way on to the screen to herald the start of the adverts, you'd still have to sit through a cartoon or some sort of public education film before the main attraction arrived.

And if the film was long enough, half-way through there would be an interval where staff really would stand around selling snacks from a tray around their necks.

The old - now demolished - cinema in Tunbridge Wells; the scene of many a long queue
The old - now demolished - cinema in Tunbridge Wells; the scene of many a long queue

Oh, and you'd not be alone if the old-style film projector - today films are all digital - conked out halfway through and you'd have to wait for it to be sorted out. Superman II in Sevenoaks, circa 1981, being a case in point.

Driving Tests

Taking your driving test is not only an expensive business today, but a lengthy process too - and trying to ensure those behind the wheel of a vehicle have jumped through hoops for the privilege is, let's face it, no bad thing.

Today the budding motorist needs to have shelled out for the lessons, then booked a theory test during which they get quizzed not only on some Highway Code classics, but also undergo a hazard perception test. It's an experience which not only do you have to travel to - in Canterbury it's in the glitzy surroundings of an old office block in which a wrong turn takes you into a pool hall - but can last for 90 minutes.

Pass that and, finally, you can book your driving test proper before discovering if you can spend the rest of the afternoon practising doughnuts in the local car park (just a little joke there folks, in reality you then become the nominated driver for your friends' drunken jaunts to the pub until someone else emerges with a full licence).

Ripping up the L-plates didn't involve a lengthy theory test
Ripping up the L-plates didn't involve a lengthy theory test

Back in the 1980s, it was a rather simpler process. You took your lessons and you applied for your test when you felt ready. Then, as you nervously three-point-turned your way around local streets on the day itself, you would finish by pulling into the driving test centre where the instructor - who at this stage would not have given you an indication of your success or otherwise - would keep you in the car and run through a handful of questions based on the Highway Code. It took all of a few minutes. Emerge without dropping any clangers and that precious licence was yours.

The Telephone

It is a completely foreign concept for today's youngsters to imagine life without a mobile phone. Indeed, if you go back just 20 years, if you saw people using a chunky little Nokia they were the height of fashion. Today, they're probably using it as a burner phone for some nefarious purpose.

Today we barely blink an eye if we spot someone with as much computing power in the palm of their hand as the machines used to get man to the Moon.

But in the 1980s if you went out to meet your friends, some pre-planning was required. You'd also actually have to speak to people on a landline to make the arrangements. If you wanted to use the equivalent of a text or Whats App message, then you'd have to write them a letter. And that was, frankly, a rather painfully slow process.

Phone boxes were once the way to have a private conversation in the days before mobile phones
Phone boxes were once the way to have a private conversation in the days before mobile phones

No, better to fix a time and then head to the spot and hope for the best. If your bus or train into, say, Maidstone, was late, well, it was up to your friends to hang around or simply start the evening without you. Not of course, that you'd have any idea where they were when you eventually turned up.

The trick was to always go armed with a few five and 10ps, or those new-fangled 20 pence pieces. Because when you needed to summon a lift home, you'd have to experience the delight of a public phone box, getting your message across before the beeping told you your money was running out. Today, the few remaining ones have been turned into tiny community libraries or a home for a defibrillator or, it seems, a public urinal.

A big step forward was when BT launched phone cards - allowing you to buy a card preloaded with cash. Parents were often only too happy to issue them to their offspring. Children were pleased to have something to put in their wallets or purse.

And while we're on the subject of phones, if you ever went to a big outdoor event where a famous name was appearing, you'd have the today impossible-sounding experience of watching them perform with your own eyes as opposed to via the phone screen of the hundreds of people ahead of you.

On-Demand Entertainment

The likes of Spotify have transformed streaming in the entertainment industry
The likes of Spotify have transformed streaming in the entertainment industry

It's worth remembering Spotify was only really picking up a head of steam (or should that be stream) a little over 10 years ago; a move which gave us access to a record shop-size collection of on-demand music. Ditto with Sky which allowed users to access programming as and when they wanted it.

Since then, the entertainment landscape has completely changed. Want to play a top new video game instantly? Easy. Want to watch a newly-released movie? No sweat. Super-fast broadband has made accessing top-notch content something of a breeze - even in the highest quality such as 4K films and lossless audio.

Which is all rather different to days of yore.

The 1980s were a rather more simple time. You wanted to hear music on-demand? Well, you either bought an LP or cassette with the songs you wanted, or tuned into Radio 1 and hoped Dave Lee Travis or Steve Wright would spin your favourite track. Not to mention the fact for most of the decade Radio 1 was broadcast on crackly old medium-wave with only the Top 40 rundown on a Sunday night wrestling Radio 2's crisp FM signal off them for two hours and allowing home-tapers to get their fix for repeat listening over the week ahead.

As for movies? Well, if you wanted to spend a night in with that week's big new rental release, it was off to the video shop (normally a couple of shelves in your local newsagent) in the vain hope it hadn't already been bagsied by someone else (and, invariably, it almost always had been). If, by chance, you were in luck, then the shiny video box with the nice pictures would be swapped for a decaying plastic container covered in ads of local businesses and you get a set time - normally 24 or 48 hours - to get it back or face the wrath of the owner.

Blockbuster transformed the video rental market
Blockbuster transformed the video rental market

Blockbuster's arrival at the end of the decade made a significant difference with often dozens of copies of the biggest films to borrow at any given time. But even its global success couldn't prevent it from collapse in the face of today's streaming opportunities.

Of course, the quality of a video tape would be comical to the eye of today's HD and 4K-adjusted youngsters, being more akin to watching some poor quality CCTV by today’s standards.

As for television channels? We had four (and five if you were lucky enough to live in certain parts of Kent and were able to tune your portable with its little dial into ITV's London service which meant, sometimes, you had access to different content). And for those who grew up in the 1980s, QI host Sandi Toksvig will forever be Ethel, the star of TV show Number 73 - filmed, coincidentally, in Maidstone.

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