Got back from our Undaunted Courage trip out west all in one piece, despite a battle with bronchitis. The good folks at the walk-in clinic in Fergus Falls, Minnesota fixed me up with a supply of tetracycline and so we were good to go for the trip back home.
We planned to make a brief stop at our fishing cabin up in northern Wisconsin on the way back, and since the route there from Fergus Falls took us right past the Norske Nook in Hayward, we couldn’t stop ourselves from stopping for supper and pie.
When we got home, I had plenty of time to go back over the things I missed while we were on the road. While I was doing that, an article in the September issue of The Atlantic caught my eye. Written a couple months ago by Jean M. Twenge, it asked the question, “Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation?”
The kicker to the title of Twenge’s piece, “More comfortable online than out partying, post-Millennials are safer, physically, than adolescents have ever been. But they’re on the brink of a mental-health crisis,” lays out her basic thesis, which is that teens are in danger of becoming mentally and physically isolated because of the impact of smartphones on their lives.
Twenge starts her piece by recounting a conversation with the teenage child of a friend. The kid told Twenge that she spent most of her summer hanging out along, in her room, in constant communication with friends via social media. “I think we like our phones more than we like actual people,” the teen told her.
Which leads to several hundred words of increasing concern that riff off a theme laid out in a sentence in the piece: “The arrival of the smartphone has radically changed every aspect of teenagers’ lives, from the nature of their social interactions to their mental health.”
It’s entirely possible—even probable—that’s Twenge’s concerns are valid. But it’s likely panic isn’t necessarily something we need to do. In fact, it might also help put things in a little perspective to know that telecommunications revolutions have been gobsmacking technologically punch-drunk folks here in the U.S. for a long, long time.
In the early 1850s, the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy Railroad extended its tracks across the Fox River at Aurora and then west across northern Kendall County on the line’s way to Burlington, Iowa. It didn’t take long for telegraph lines to follow the tracks west, thus tying the county in with the rest of the country and the world. But the line ran a couple miles west of both Oswego and Yorkville, so it still took messages a while to get to town from stations along the line. Not until 1870, with the CB&Q’s Fox River Branch was built connecting towns along the Fox River did the bulk of Kendall residents find themselves living in towns with direct telegraph service to the rest of the world.
In the spring of 1870, the Great Western Telegraph Company strung their lines south and west of Aurora past Oswego and Yorkville and then on to Plano. On May 19, the Kendall County Record’s Oswego correspondent, Lorenzo Rank, reported that “Oswego is to be connected with the rest of the world by telegraph. A gentleman representing the Great Western Telegraph Company was here the other day disposing of the stock to our citizens and making preliminary arrangements for an office.”
Then in December 1870, the CB&Q built their own lines, following the Fox River Branch’s route all the way south to Streator. By the end of January, Rank could report: “The telegraph wire is up and we are in connection with the world at large.”
It was an immediate convenience for just about everyone from law enforcement, which used it to quickly track down horse thieves, to just regular folks. In December 1878, Tom Miller received word from England that he needed to go back to his native land to deal with settling an estate. He accordingly set off from Oswego for New York and was about to leave on a ship across the Atlantic when the British Counsel in New York telegraphed him at Oswego that due to fast-evolving circumstances, he should delay his trip. But Miller wasn’t in Oswego; he was in New York. So the message was immediately sent back east along the line, reaching him in time for him to get off the ship before it sailed for England.
It took not many more years for telephones to pop up here and there in Kendall County. Originally, they were two-party, personal affairs used to connect a business owner’s home with his store. By the late 1800s, telephone wires were beginning to stretch across the region, tying whole communities into a telecommunications network that was rapidly spanning the nation.
In December 1897, just as Oswego got connected to the national phone network, Rank commented: “The telephone is much appreciated by some of our people and quite a few distant colloquies were had by them through it on Monday. It was suggested to me that I might more readily phone my report to The Record than the doing it by writing.”
By June 1900, Rank was predicting telephones would not only affect townspeople, but would also have an interesting impact on area farmers: “Oswego is bristling with telephone poles and the lines being run from it in all directions. The farmers have been struck with the phone craze and it would seem as though they mean to raise corn and pigs by telephone from now on.”
And indeed, on June 16, 1901, the Record’s correspondent for the Specie Grove neighborhood along Minkler Road south of Oswego noted with some amazement: “We talked to the ancient city of Plattville over the ‘phone Friday. What a triumph! Certainly it would be such if the roads were as bad as they sometimes are. At the end of the century we expect to be able to talk to planets Saturn and Neptune, and to hear the songs of the stars as they sing together. Why not? It would be no greater achievement than those accomplished in the past century.”
County residents weren’t only taking advantage of the telephone’s communications advantages; some were turning their inventive genius towards finding ways to make a buck off the technology itself. Oswego druggist Scott Cutter, for instance, invented an insulator for telephone wires that didn’t require telephone poles. As wires were strung through rural areas, it was a lot more cost effective if they could be hung from trees instead of installing utility poles—especially in that day when holes for them had to be hand-dug.
Gradually, even most rural areas were wired for service. In 1900, telephone service reached Judd and Maria Bushnell’s farm, just across the Kendall County line in DeKalb County near Sandwich.
The Bushnells were enthusiastic diarists, with Judd, Maria, and their son, Frank, all jotting their thoughts down on a near-daily basis around the turn of the 20th Century.
Reading the diaries, copies of which are in the collections of Oswego’s Little White School Museum, it is striking how much face-to-face socializing went on in rural areas of that time. The stereotype of isolated farms and their lonely residents simply doesn’t stand up to an encounter with the Bushnell diaries, which record a continual series of overnight guests, of the Bushnells visiting other families and staying overnight, and numerous trips to town and for pleasure.
But all that personalized socializing came to a halt with the arrival of the Bushnells’ telephone. After their phone was installed in their farm house, the swirl of face-to-face visits sharply declined, eventually trickling off to almost zero. Instead, the Bushnells write about talking on the phone with friends and relatives.
So like all new inventions, the impact of telephone technology had a host of unforeseen consequences for area residents. Business owners had no trouble adjusting to the phone system’s advent. It took regular folks a little longer to figure out how they’d benefit from it, some, like Oswego’s Scott Cutter, turning their inventive genius towards figuring out how to make a buck off improving aspects of the business. Others, like the Bushnells, experienced lifestyle changes they likely didn’t even notice until after they’d occurred. Although you could make a good case for the impact of television on society, I believe it would take until the invention and adoption of the Internet for such a major information technology-driven change in people’s lives to occur again.
Pretty sure we can already answer the question of that Atlantic article and figure that no, smartphones won’t destroy a generation. After all, we’ve survived the positive predictions of television, video games, and Pokemon Go destroying generations past. But given the way these things seem to creep up on us, I can hardly wait to find out how the next big thing in communications will disrupt my life.