Life before the internet: Letters, Ma Bell, and harried highway adventures

By Diana Montague, Ph.D.

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A recent assignment in my Media Literacy class had students interview “people of a certain age” about how they used to access information and complete tasks before the internet changed everything and smartphones became our appendages.

Students learned their fathers wrote actual letters to cousins in college. Some parents remembered calling long distance only on Sundays (you paid Ma Bell by the minute and weekends were cheaper).

Before shopping went online, children waited for the Sears Christmas catalog to come in the mail each fall. They’d circle “wish list” items to help Santa (who had to order gifts out of paper catalogs when the elves couldn’t keep up at the North Pole).

Perhaps I’m dating myself (I’m “George Clooney was born on my birthdate” years old—look it up) but it wasn’t THAT long ago when we had no email or social media or texting to get immediate school information. On snowy mornings we waited for the local radio station to read off closed schools. If you missed the 6:25 a.m. reading you had to wait another 20 minutes for the next alphabetical list. (In later years we watched the TV chyron scroll school closings across the bottom of the screen, another interminable wait through the alphabet if your school began with “Saint.”)

Before the internet you went to a travel agent to book a flight and then called the airline on a land line to see if the flight was on time. You went to a physical bank to cash a physical check and you paid with physical cash when you shopped at physical stores.

To navigate your way to Disney World you followed AAA TripTiks or flailed around in the car with impossible-to-refold maps that made origami look easy.

Ah, the maps. Of all the Internet/satellite wizardry available, the most valuable invention for me is GPS, the answer to small-print paper maps and exasperated pleas of “pull over and ask directions!”

A Garmin would have saved my life many moons ago. When I worked in Winona, Minn., back in the early 1980s, I would drive seven hours by myself to visit my family in Kankakee, Ill. I used a map on the first few visits, but then I figured I just needed to remember the highway numbers and I’d make it back home.

Big mistake. On one trip I got disoriented using a cloverleaf exit in northern Illinois, and it “felt like” I should turn right to go south.


With no GPS to tell me to turn around (or at least “recalculating,”) I kept driving through corn and soybean fields, wondering why it looked a little different than the last trip. An hour later, I saw “Welcome to Beloit, Wisconsin!” when I should have been nearing Kankakee County (south of Chicago).

I was mortified. I had no cell phone to call my mother or google a local map. (And who carried $4 in change to call long distance on a pay phone?) I had an Illinois map but not a Wisconsin map. I’d still be driving around the Land of Cheese if I hadn’t found a gas station to ask directions. It was a horrifying, humbling experience.

Now when I travel, I utter a magical incantation to my Garmin like I’m at Hogwarts, and a lovely voice guides me, turn by turn, to my destination. So simple!

The Internet has certainly improved many aspects of our lives, but I think its easy access also has weakened some of our problem-solving skills (and, perhaps, curtailed some of our unexpected, back-roads adventures.)


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