Traveling Kids and The History of Communication


This weekend we sent our younger son on a trip to Quebec City. It was a cool opportunity with the French department at the high school, and would allow some exposure to a predominantly French-speaking environment. We have been fortunate that both of our kids have had these opportunities (older son spent last July in Europe, and both are going to Washington DC in April) and that we are able to take advantage of them.

Because it is outside of the US, cell phone usage became an immediate issue. We didn’t want him using his iPhone because the data and phone charges are exorbitant … although basic texting was no added cost. So I set him up with my old Samsung Galaxy S3, which was essentially a WiFi-only solution for him. He installed WhatsApp and Google Hangouts (as well as Twitter, Instagram, and so on) and was ready to go … or so we thought!

As it turned out, the WiFi at the hotel they stayed at was out and therefore we only heard from him a couple of times when he hit WiFi momentarily.

Also this weekend we were hanging out in the kitchen and my older son was listening to some ‘underground rap’ and there was a reference to ‘Ma Bell’ and I asked him if he got the reference, also noting that the person making the reference probably wasn’t alive when it made sense!

That got us thinking about how many things about communications have changed in just the last 50 years. Here are a few:

Home Phone – it is hard to believe that it wasn’t until after World War II and into the 1950s that most homes had their own phone. Both of our grandparents had stories about the pre-home phone era.

Party Line – Lisa’s grandmother had a party line in place until she died in the early 90s. It was a system that is unfathomable to my kids – you would share a single phone loop-line and therefore it was possible to pick up a phone and have your neighbor on the line! Different houses had different rings. Could you imagine?

Land-lines – when I was in high school I knew a couple of kids who had their own phone line. It was a status symbol and extravagance as phone lines were not a cheap thing to begin with. The rest of us had as much privacy as the coiled cord would allow!

Touch Tone – my kids think that rotary phones are cool and quaint … now imagine trying to call a radio station as a teen to win a prize on one … without redial as an option! Touch tone phones were simply amazing when they became wide-spread.

The End of Ma Bell – today we think about Microsoft when we think of monopolies (or perhaps some combination of Apple, Google or Samsung). They all pale in comparison to ‘THE phone company’. Lily Tomlin had a great comedy skt about it, which has absolutely no meaning now – people were afraid of buying their own equipment, extending to a second phone in another room … and nothing happened unless the phone company said so, and there were no options.

Pay Phone – this is another thing that has left a mark, as walls in subways are now blank and former payphone banks in airports have been reconfigured into laptop zones around the removed phones. For a long time picking up someone at the airport would revolve around payphones and landlines.

Cell phone – the advent of the cell phone changed so many things, but mostly only if you were in an area with service. I remember Lisa and I have early Cingular wireless phones, and there was barely any service anywhere – we would drive to her parents and about 90% of the ride was a ‘no service’ zone unless we took the Mass Pike, in which case we were never far from help.

Smartphones – Lisa resisted getting an iPhone, yet is now using it for everything. Sure there is Facebook, but maps, cell, text, iMessage, as well as having WhatsApp and Hangouts always ready means a constant stream of communication.

Lisa and I also talked about our own trips as kids. I went to Toronto (from Boston area) with the Jazz Band, and didn’t talk to my parents a single time. They said goodbye at the high school and then picked up. Lisa actually went to Spain in high school and the situation was similar. Same thing for both of us in college – I had a bunch of trips, and Lisa had a trip to Jamaica as a ‘J-term’ event … no special calls.

Nor was there any expectation – this system of expecting our kids to ‘check in’ is very much a new thing. When we got our kids cell phones we told them of our expectations, and that their having phones was conditional on that.

They have grown up fully in the smartphone era – many people who follow this blog have also likely always seen the world full of cell phones. I sometimes cannot believe how much I depend on technology when as an adult I had many years where I was out of luck without a payphone and had to deal with company calling cards and access codes and other things.

One thing with our kids – while we like to hear from them, just as a check in, we don’t want it to be dominant or have expectations of a ‘daily phone call’. That is actually one of the great things with technology – you can take 15 seconds and text ‘hey yo, how u doin’?’ and get a 15 second reply and be done with it.

What do you think? Would you have gotten the ‘Ma Bell’ reference? What sort of telephone technology did you grow up with? Do you think smartphones improves communications or creates distance?

7 thoughts on “Traveling Kids and The History of Communication

  1. I get it, but I’m not as young as some of your readers. I also worked for a landline phone company my first 5 years out of college! I like smartphones but I think they’ve led to a lack of patience in society. Everything’s immediate, response time is shortened, and you feel obligated to answer people immediately. There’s a lack of mystery anymore-not everyone remembers when they had to wait for their crush to call them or dial someone’s phone and hang up in a panic when they answered without fear of Caller ID.

    • There really are things lost in the immediacy of smartphones and instant communication … and I don’t think we really know what they all are yet! I was thinking about that as I wrote about Lisa and I and our comedy of errors on the two Dunkin Donuts at Park Street station. Cell phone world – one text and done. I cannot help but think that so much of life is different because of technology and the loss of hand-written letters, waiting for phone calls, buying books and albums at stores, and so on … not necessarily better or worse, just differemt.

    • It is funny looking at Verizon compared to the old AT&T/Ma Bell … as Verizon re-consolidated, they also became less relevant. Fewer and fewer people have land-lines, cable offers better internet than DSL (and FiOS is still limited in reach), and since Cable bundles-in phone service for nearly free there is less appeal, and so on. They are kings of an ever-shrinking fiefdom! 🙂

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