Sunday, February 22, 2015

Miss Conduct to the Rescue: A Case for "Big Narrative"

Chillicothe, Missouri, paved and tidy for the automobile,
was also home of the first sliced bread in 1928
It’s relatively easy to measure the speed of technology adoption. We know, for instance, that there were 8,000 automobiles on American roads in 1900 and about 25 million in 1950.  Both quantitatively and intuitively, that’s rapid growth.   Likewise, U.S. smartphone penetration in 2005 was 20.2% and in 2014 was 50.1%, another technological blur.

What’s harder to measure is the speed at which technology changes our behavior, or our ideas about how the world should work.  Speed, penetration and adoption are a function of numbers and can be charted.  Behavior is a function of opinion and emotion, and for that we need narrative.

In 1950 journalist Clyde Brion Davis (1894-1962) wrote a colorful biography, The Age of Indiscretion, about growing up at the turn of the 20th century in Chillicothe, Missouri.  Davis’s folksy story of the coming of the automobile provides a textured narrative for how one small Midwestern town adapted.


"The Passing of the Horse" from Life magazine, early 1900s
Clyde Davis saw his first horseless carriage in Chillicothe in 1902.  It was called by “the Frenchified term” of “automobile” but known to the local skeptics as an “oughta-mow-hay.”  This first noisy apparatus was owned by the local doctor, Arthur Simpson, and was a simple affair that the boys on bicycles had no trouble keeping pace with on the rougher parts of the road.  Davis’s older brother saw no future in the contraption, telling anyone who would listen that it would blow-up when the gasoline slopped from the tank into the lamp which heated the ignition rod.  (It was only later that Davis learned some clever inventor had created a system where the gasoline was exploded internally.)

Dr. Simpson’s “stink-buggy” was not popular.  It frightened horses.  It was a needless affectation.  There was rumor of an ordinance being written to ban autos in town.  There were assaults on the good doctor’s reputation, saying to expect a rash of appendicitis to pay for his extravagance.

Simpson held firm.  Three years later there were five or six autos in town.  A loosely knit brotherhood began to grow among owners and enthusiasts.  The local editor suggested that some of the more important streets in town be paved to accommodate gas-powered vehicles.  The Mayor himself, ever forward-looking, was in favor of paving one street north-south and one east-west.  The Widow Gordon was apoplectic about these threats, saying it would be sheer piracy to raid her bank account to pave a street just so that rich people could travel comfortably in bad weather.

"Jilted!" from Judge magazine, 1905
Progress ultimately prevailed and Calhoun Street was selected for pavement, with a side stretch on Locust to get to the train depot.  The autos in Chillicothe soon had an entire mile to run up and down, and they did.  The noise nearly drove Widow Gordon crazy.  Those with more open minds living on the newly paved street realized how much easier it was to keep their homes clean in the hot, dusty summers.  Pretty soon there was a kind of parade up and down the street every evening after dinner, some of the horse-drawn carriages joining in.  Everyone felt they were on display and began keeping their vehicles, horse and horseless both, polished and running like never before.  Some homeowners on the street became self-conscious about their property and invested in their lawns, hedges and home upkeep.  “The Hoges got their big house repainted and glistening, and that made the Lees’ house look dingy by comparison.”  Soon it became a mark of distinction to reside on Calhoun Street.  That’s when the people on neighboring roads began to clamor for pavement.

Before long there were 15 automobiles in town.  July 4th festivities featured an auto race on the county fair grounds.

Next, Chillicothe residents began to feel that they were marooned in their town during bad weather. That mean more spending on the roads in and out of town. . .

You know the rest of the story.  “The internal combustion engine had manumitted the Missouri farmer,” Davis wrote from his perch in 1950, “and consequently brought prosperity to hundreds of communities such as Chillicothe.”  This narrative is a great reminder, despite the graphs showing hockey-stick auto adoption in the US after 1900, that it was still a street-by-street, town-by-town battle for the hearts and minds of the consuming public.

What about something more current, like cellphones and social media?  We certainly have experienced rapid adoption.  Many of us remember when we got our first cellphone, our first smartphone, and when we assured friends that we’d never be on Facebook.  Many of us remember the first time we headed for work, realized we'd left our cellphone at home, and turned around to retrieve it (some of us after having gone to work cheerfully for 20 years without a cellphone).  Even so, I can almost promise you--graphs and recent memory notwithstanding--that the street-by-street, town-by-town narrative of modern technology is already getting jumbled in our minds.

Last Sunday, the Boston Globe’s “Miss Conduct” looked back over her first ten years of writing an advice column.  This spanned the period beginning in 2005, “when Facebook was still only for college students"; through office water-cooler battles when “DVR people” were angry that those watching shows in “real time” gave away the plot; to questions about whether a boyfriend should hack his girlfriend’s computer to propose via a pop-up screen.

This was all in just the last ten years.  Since George Bush’s second term.  Here are some of the other narrative milestones in our collective technology lives, supplied by Miss Conduct:
  • The first complaint that friends paid more attention to their cellphones than to their dinner companions came in October 2007.  Just eight years ago.  Doesn’t it seem like we have been ignored by our dining companions for decades?
  • The first question about Facebook came in 2009 from a person who “wondered how, if at all, she should congratulate renewed acquaintances on having come out of the closet.”  This is a good reminder that civil rights may be the one thing in America that has changed faster than technology in the last ten years. 
  • Someone asked if it was appropriate to answer a cellphone call a work.
  • Another asked if he should answer political posts on Facebook from friends with whom he violently disagreed.  (No. Way.)
  • How should someone handle a friend who kept debunking his spam emails with links from Snopes?
  • Someone wanted to know if punctuation mattered in a text.  (Doesn’t that seem quaint now?)
That’s how narrative works, different from charts and graphs.  We can almost hear the Widow Gordon yelling about paved roads and noise even as her neighbors guiltily slunk off to visit the local auto dealer.  Or your grandparents joined Facebook.

I can look back over my own posts on this blog from 2007 and 2008 and laugh.  There was the Saturday morning during a blizzard (some things never change) when I did not have to walk to the end of the driveway to get the Wall Street Journal because it was on my Kindle.  At the time that seemed like a minor miracle.

I always remember David McCullough’s distinction: “The queen died and then the king died.”  That’s one kind of history, like saying cellphone penetration in the United States has doubled to over 50% since 2005. 

But also: “The queen died and then the king died of a broken heart” is the kind of history we live.  It’s certainly the kind Dr. Simpson and Widow Gordon lived in Chillicothe in 1900.  It’s surely the kind we’re living everyday with our own technology, even if we've already begun to forget.

Google Street View, Calhoun & Locust Streets, Chillicothe, Missouri, 2008