Technology in the Foreign Service

Sometimes, I wonder what life in the Foreign Service was like before the internet.

I spent a year in Germany as an exchange student in the late 1990s.  Only one of my four host families had internet connections set up at home and it was dial up.  I only stayed with them for about a month, but I’d go back to their house after school once or twice a week to check e-mail.  I’d log on, download my e-mails, type responses offline, then log back on to send them, since it cost per minute for both the internet and phone use.  I talked with my parents on the phone every two weeks or so and mostly just sent letters or e-mails to friends.

When I was in Germany, I’d sometimes go to the train station in town to find English-language magazines.  Since U.S. television and movies were dubbed into German on television and in movie theatres, it was a BIG DEAL when another exchange student got ahold of a movie in English.  I had very few ways to get U.S.-specific products like Dr Pepper, (decent) salsa, etc.  Kraft Macaroni and Cheese was like gold.

Now, part of the reason my life was so different is because I was a 16 year old student then and I was living with German families who had to adapt to their lives and I’m a 30-something professional living on my own and can make more of my own decisions now, but a lot of it has to do with how technology has made so many things different.  I have a laptop that I can take with me to post easily.  I now have 24/7 internet access that’s fast enough that I can stream U.S. movies and TV shows online.  I can chat online with friends around the world, keep up with them on Facebook, or call them over the internet.   I can even video chat if I want to see their face!  If I’m craving a U.S. product, I can often order it online instead of having to go on a wild goose chase around town and then having to pay 3x the normal price for a stale product.

So, I wonder what life was like in the Foreign Service before internet access became so common.  Did people order a lot more things by catalog?  Just make do with local products?  Did people call home less frequently or did they use the IVG a lot?  Did they also swap U.S. movies because they were hard to come by?   It’d be interesting to know and one of these days I should really get around to asking one of my coworkers who experienced the Foreign Service before the internet came on to the scene.

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