If you can believe it, wifi is 20 years old this month. To celebrate the big occasion, Charlotte Cohen – born in the same year as wifi – tries her very best to understand what life was like before wifi and how it’s changed our lives

Do you think you could live without wifi? That's a question my parents have posed to me many times throughout my life. Of course I could! How hard could it possibly be?

Apparently, pretty difficult.

How people managed before wifi existed is beyond me. It has completely revolutionised the way we live our lives – we are totally dependent on it. It has made everything we do so much faster and easier. As a result, we are becoming so much lazier. It’s almost as if we don’t need to know stuff anymore. It has transformed the way we work and obtain information – making it a lot less difficult.

Those who have been around since before wi-fi (so really anyone 21 or above) love to talk of how they lived before it. I’ve been told stories from back in the day, when you had to spend hours looking through books if you needed to know something. Even finding the right book to look through took time.

People often refer to the past as simpler times, but in reality, it’s the present that is simplifying everything. Thanks to wifi, whether on a phone or a laptop, every piece of information we could want or need is right in front of us within seconds. Google even tells you how long it took to get the results, which is never more than half a second. A world of information right at our fingertips ... it’s strange to think anyone knew anything before.

Universities use wifi for almost everything: lecture slides and notes are uploaded; essays are researched, uploaded and grades returned online. Unlike with handing in a paper copy, "my Wi-Fi wasn’t working" is a much more robust excuse as to why your essay was a day late. Unlike telling them "I forgot" (student speak for "I couldn’t be bothered"), a lecturer can’t prove that your wifi wasn’t working. If you can hand in an essay at 11.58pm when it’s due at midnight, there’s so much room for procrastination. We’re becoming lazier because wifi does everything for us: it hands in our essays, it does our research ... all while we lie in our bed with our jammies on. There’s very little that we actually need to do ourselves anymore.

Friendships have been completely altered by wifi. We don’t talk to people anymore. We check up on their lives through Facebook or Instagram. Before wifi, if it was someone’s birthday you’d send them a card, give them a call or stop in at their house to say happy birthday. We don’t even need to remember when their birthdays are anymore – that’s what Facebook is for. It reminds you whose birthday it is and when, even nudging you to wish them well.

We can stay in touch with people all over the world, discover old friends we haven’t been in touch with for years. Before wifi, if your friend moved across the globe, what did you do? Maybe an occasional letter or a phone call, forgetting what they looked like if you ever did see them again. Today, pull out your phone, do a quick search on Facebook and you can know every part of their life, in detail. We are more open to the world than was ever possible before wifi.

People can learn every detail of our life as and when it happens, but we’ve stopped actually talking to them because we’ve run out of things to say. Wifi has, in a way, destroyed our friendships while at the same time making us feel like they are much stronger. Admittedly it’s a problem caused by the internet and social media – but it’s wifi that facilitates it. If internet were the disease, wifi would be patient zero.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s amazing to know that your best friend from 15 years ago is now a successful ballet dancer in Wales, or that your cousin in America just graduated college. We can keep in touch with family and friends around the world, even when everyone is on different time zones. I can’t even begin to imagine how expensive it would be to FaceTime (that's a video call over the internet, in case you're wondering) someone in Australia if it weren’t for wifi, or to message your friends when you’re in a foreign country. Wifi enables connection (pun intended) anywhere and everywhere.

Not only has it changed the way we maintain our friendships, it’s also changed how they start. I distinctly remember my first day of university. A group of us were sitting in the foyer of our accommodation and instead of actually chatting and getting to know one another, we passed our phones around the group so we could follow each other on Instagram. We had probably exhausted all avenues of conversation by that point (a classic freshers week problem). Without wifi we would have just sat in awkward silence. Or would we have been better at talking?

Thanks to wifi, most friendships begin online. Before it, if you met someone and didn’t get the number for their landline (back when people actually used landlines) then that was it. You would probably never see them again. It’s completely different now. You meet someone and one of the first things you do is whip out your phone and find a way of staying in touch – not that you ever do.

People come in to your house and the first thing they ask is ‘What’s the wifi password?’ But they shouldn’t be there to use the wifi. How about we stop pulling out our phones every few minutes and actually have a conversation? Or is that too much to ask?

For people of my generation, we haven’t had a choice. Our society needs wifi to function, it’s a requirement in almost everything we do. It’s part of our generation and will be a part of every generation to come. It may not be good for us, but there is no way we can live without it.

A brief history of wifi

1941: Hollywood actress Hedy Lamarr invents and patents a technology (for army torpedoes to enable them go undetected during WWII) that isn’t revisited until decades later when it is discovered that it can be used for Wi-Fi.

1971: University of Hawaii provides the first public demonstration of a wireless packet data network

1999: Industry recognized standards established. Wifi is trademarked and becoming a household name; only 13% of British households have internet access.

A common misconception is that the term wifi is short for "wireless fidelity", however this is not the case. It is simply a trademarked phrase that means IEEE 802.11x

2005: The word ‘wifi’ is added to the dictionary

2012: Wifi in 25% of homes worldwide

2014: 10 billionth wifi-enabled device ships

2017: 90% of British households have internet access

2019: The 30 billionth wifi device ships