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answering machine

Friday Fun for the IT Crowd: What else did ‘90s movies teach us about technology?

December 03, 2015
By Sarah O'Connor

In September we rode the information superhighway back to the days of Netscape Navigator, floppy disks and Beverly Hills matchmaker Cher Horowitz. But our journey doesn’t have to stop with the adventures of Zero Cool. Join me as I turn on my iMac G3 and remember more tech themes from 1990s movies.

Tech flashback: Answering machines

It may be hard to remember the days before texting and Gchat, but back in the 1990s, we spent more time actually talking on the phone and leaving messages for each other. We used physical answering machines to record messages from callers who tried to reach us while we were away, since leaving the house meant leaving the phone. But what happened when those tapes contained humiliating missives? We’d save them and play them for our friends, of course. Or messages we wished we’d rather not gotten?

  • Top pick: Swingers (1996): When Mike (Jon Favreau), insecure after a breakup, leaves a series of messages on a woman’s answering machine, the audience cringes as his calls become increasingly more desperate and awkward as he rambles and over-explains. Each message is recorded on her answering machine (for people born after 1995: an actual physical device that sits next to a homephone, i.e., a phone attached to your house with a cord … never mind), echoing throughout her apartment. Today’s non-confrontational texters don’t know how good they have it!
  • Honorable mention: The Cable Guy (1996): Nothing could beat the feeling of walking in the door and seeing a number of voicemails waiting for you. But imagine Steven Kovacs’ (Matthew Broderick) sinking dismay when he realizes 10 of his messages are  from his deranged Cable Guy (Jim Carrey), who was just calling to check in … over and over and over.

Early Internet

Back in the early days of the Internet, functionality was pretty limited. We couldn’t stream movies or music, and just downloading a photo could take hours. We had to disconnect the phone line to use the Internet modem, or visit an Internet café and pay for each minute online. And we complained endlessly about pop-up ads. Well, some things never change.

  • Top pick: Sleepless in Seattle (1993): Pre-Google and pre-Yahoo!, search engines were very primitive. You could ask Jeeves your queries or type your search string into portals such as WebCrawler, Excite!, Dogpile or Lycos. But when intrepid Baltimore Sun journalist Annie (Meg Ryan) wants to track down widower Sam (Tom Hanks) after his son calls in to a lovelorn radio show on his behalf, all she has to do was type in a few vague terms (“architect,” “Seattle”) into her newspaper’s database. Soon, she’s able to track Sam down in a city as big as Seattle and, plot devices aside, eventually meet him on the top of the Empire State Building. Of course, this movie script couldn’t even exist today, since Annie would merely send Sam an email via his company’s website or look him up on Facebook.
  • Honorable mention: Independence Day (1996): Aliens attack Earth but they're no match for a former MIT scientist (Jeff Goldblum) and his ability to hack into their computer system to thwart the attack. In keeping with the mystical powers '90s movies ascribed to hackers, the whole task is as easy as hitting a few buttons and watching a progress bar say “uploading virus.” 

Bonus category: Getting the job

Since TEKsavvy also shares career advice and insight with our readers, I thought you might enjoy this what-not-to-do example from a ‘90s comedy: 

  • Don’t Tell Mom the Babysitter’s Dead (1991): When Mrs. Crandell takes an extended vacation to Australia, she leaves a disagreeable elderly babysitter in charge for the summer. The babysitter passes away unexpectedly, and teenager Sue Ellen (Christina Applegate) finds herself in charge of her younger siblings. Disillusioned by her job in a fast-food restaurant, Sue Ellen invents a ludicrous resume and bluffs her way into a high-powered executive assistant role at a Los Angeles fashion company. In the days before LinkedIn and Facebook, apparently no one thinks to fact-check the qualifications of a 16-year old with work experience at Vogue, Bloomingdale’s and Barneys New York. Sue Ellen handles all her tasks by delegating work to others, siphoning money from petty cash and declaring, “I’m right on top of that, Rose!” whenever her boss asks for a status update. Her lies are uncovered when her mother returns home in the middle of the end-of-season fashion show.

Any other fun ‘90s movies or tech themes I missed? Let me know in the comments.

You may also enjoy these past posts:

What did ‘90s movies teach us about technology?

Throwback Thursday: From MTV to YouTube, the evolution of music videos

Throwback Thursday: Special effects killed the radio star

As marketing communications manager, Sarah O’Connor develops and supports strategies to promote TEKsystems’ brand to job seekers, consultants and clients. She enjoys running and exploring new cities—preferably both at the same time. 

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