Frank Navasky predicted the downfall of Western civilization, and we ignored him.
Dial up to the internet and order some Starbucks: it’s You’ve Got Mail Week at All Things New. The classic rom-com starring Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan turns 20 on December 18. To celebrate, we’ll be reflecting on what the late 90s can teach us about love, community (both the online and offline varieties), identity, and trusting God’s plan for our lives.
It wouldn’t be You’ve Got Mail Week without a deep dive into the nostalgia of dial-up internet, Frank Navasky’s typewriters and how much communication technology has changed since 1998.
What follows is an excerpt from a special episode of the All Things New Podcast between Stephanie Carney and Trevor Sides. You can listen to the whole episode here. The excerpt has been edited for readability.
Trevor Sides: So this is your 20th year watching You’ve Got Mail.
Stephanie Carney: Oh, thanks for that.
Trevor: Which quotes still make you go, “Oh, that’s hilarious, I didn’t catch that the first time”?
Stephanie: Frank Navasky, Kathleen Kelly‘s boyfriend in the beginning, I mean, he is hilarious. Greg Kinnear. He is amazing.
Trevor: Greg Kinnear is the unsung hero of this movie. He steals the show. He’s also amazing in Sabrina.
Trevor: How high on your rom-com list is Sabrina, the remake with Harrison Ford?
Stephanie: I like Sabrina, but not so much when it first came out. But it’s grown on me, and I like it quite a bit.
You’ve Got Mail starts with Frank and Kathleen talking. And he says, “Listen to this: ‘The entire work force of the state of Virginia had to have solitaire removed from their computers’—because they hadn’t done any work in six weeks. You know what this is, you know what we’re seeing here? We’re seeing the end of Western civilization as we know it.”
I just cracked up. I thought it was funny then, but now it’s like, that would be great if that were our biggest problem with computers. Those were the days when that was the biggest problem the workforce had with technology.
There’s another moment when Frank points to Kathleen’s computer and says, “You think this is your friend, but it isn’t.”
Trevor: If they ever do a spin-off movie about any of the characters, the one I’d like to see would be one on Frank Navasky and what became of him during the rise of social media. What happens to him after 1998? What does he do? He has a rude awakening coming pretty quickly.
Stephanie: There’s a funny interaction when Kathleen Kelly was talking with her employees, and they were trying to figure out who her secret pen pal is, and George said, “Oh, he’s the rooftop killer!” Kathleen is like, “He can’t possibly be.” But then one of them goes, “Remember when you thought Frank was the Unabomber?” And she said, “Well, that was different.”
So, I imagine Frank in a cabin in the woods with a typewriter. But someone will come be a courier for his words. Because he wants to get his words out, too. Although he hates technology, he wants to be heard. He’ll have to figure that out.
Trevor: I found myself strangely agreeing with a lot of Frank Navasky’s takes on technology. He wasn’t a Luddite per se, but someone who was hyper-critical, get-off-my-lawn about technology. He were on to something with their questions about technology.
Stephanie: I’ve looked at typewriters on ebay. I love typewriters, but I love my computer, too. They’re actually really expensive, more expensive than computers.
Trevor: This is the worst time to get into typewriters and vinyl. It’s like $50 a record today. What are we doing? This is ridiculous. We should just blame Brooklyn hipsters for the price hike in typewriters and vinyl records.
Trevor: Yeah, vintage. How does the technology in the movie hit you now?
Stephanie: When I hear the dial-up sound, it’s just nostalgia. The good ol’ days. But I remember when you were first able to have internet in your home—man, that makes it sound like I’m 80 years old.
Trevor: Okay, GenZ-ers, there was a day when the internet was not, you know, a thing.
Stephanie: It became a thing when I was going into college. I got my first email account when I was going into college. But I remember when dial-up was the only option before broadband. It could be so frustrating, because it would just keep going and going and wouldn’t connect. When you knew you had another option, it was like, “Ugh, get me off this.” I’d hate to use it again. It’s like looking at a toy you played with in the 80s. It’s nostalgic.
Trevor: Yeah, there’s a deep nostalgia there. Dialing-up to the internet is the opening sequence of the film. It’s amazing how much has changed in twenty years.
Stephanie: I don’t miss the slowness of dial-up, but I do miss when email was simply a faster way of sending a letter. It wasn’t garbage. Most the stuff I get now…I just feel inundated.
Trevor: I don’t know if I’ve watched a movie set in “modern” times but which was still old enough where smartphones aren’t ubiquitous. So, in You’ve Got Mail, it was weird to see all these people interacting with each other, and there’s not a single cell phone in sight. It was really strange
Stephanie: It was lovely.
Trevor: Yeah, people could survive without smartphones, once upon a time.
Stephanie: I’d go on road trips in college and no one got lost.
Trevor: We still knew things!
Stephanie: We could still navigate using real maps!
Trevor: Along these lines, another surprising thing from watching the film again was how “embodied” their lives were. It was striking to see Kathleen Kelly and her co-workers singing around a piano. I thought, “Wow. How often does that happen today, where a group of friends get around a piano and entertain themselves?” That was really weird, seeing how together and physical their existence was.
Stephanie: My family used to do that at Christmastime. My aunt would play the piano, and we’d have our own parts to the “12 Days of Christmas.” It’s not that you couldn’t do this now, but maybe it just comes to mind less? I don’t know.
Trevor: All you can do with pianos today is give them away on Craigslist.
Stephanie: They’re almost in the way. You can’t move them.
Just watching the characters, you almost don’t realize it, but they’re present with each other. When you go to someone’s house for Christmas, you’re just there. No one can reach you. Your home phone is at home. The only way to do this now is by asking people to leave their phones at the door.
Trevor: The movie came at a time when we first started asking the question, “What’s different between our online selves and offline selves?” Dial-up allowed a certain way of being in relationship. I think the movie shows this clearly. Because you had to wait a long time to get online, because it was expensive, because you couldn’t put it in my pocket, because it wasn’t ubiquitous—it wasn’t easy-everywhere—you had to be in my home—
Stephanie: Sitting down for a chunk of time—
Trevor: —sitting down to process. Like you said, it was a faster form of letter-writing.
Stephanie: It’s like a journal you’re sharing. When you’re talking with a friend, you process things differently than if you were sitting down and thinking about what I’m actually thinking, what’s actually going on.