The Oregon Telephone Herald Co.-- It's Information, Inspiration and Amusement

Recent research indicates that the proliferation of cell phone signals may be causing bee populations to dwindle (also known as “Colony Collapse Disorder”).

What? Man-made activity wreaking environmental havoc? In this modern age of technological wonder and universal high-mindedness? I don't want to believe it.

Is a dying bee colony the new version of the canary in the coal mine? Could our modern communication demands be creating unintended consequences?

This could be a serious problem:

No Bees = No Pollination = No Food = We All Die.

Okay, so that would be bad. But wouldn’t it be worse if we couldn’t use our cell phones and wireless connections to tell each other how we’re feeling about it?

We’ve grown accustomed to technology connecting us with our world by providing a fat pipeline of information, entertainment and, increasingly, social interaction. But at what cost?

Two years ago, in an article in The Atlantic titled, "Is Google Making Us Stupid," Nicholas Carr questioned whether the internet was not only changing our habits, but actually rewiring our brains. He starts the story this way:

Over the past few years I’ve had an uncomfortable sense that someone, or something, has been tinkering with my brain, remapping the neural circuitry, reprogramming the memory. My mind isn’t going—so far as I can tell—but it’s changing. I’m not thinking the way I used to think. I can feel it most strongly when I’m reading. Immersing myself in a book or a lengthy article used to be easy. My mind would get caught up in the narrative or the turns of the argument, and I’d spend hours strolling through long stretches of prose. That’s rarely the case anymore. Now my concentration often starts to drift after two or three pages. I get fidgety, lose the thread, begin looking for something else to do. I feel as if I’m always dragging my wayward brain back to the text. The deep reading that used to come naturally has become a struggle.

Full disclosure: I didn't read the whole article because it was in The Atlantic and I just don't have that kind of attention span.

Carr expands on the article in a newly published book, "The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to our Brains." In his review of Carr's book for the New York Times, Jonah Lehrer put our anxiety about techonology into historical context:

Socrates started what may have been the first technology scare. In the 'Phaedrus,' he lamented the invention of books, which 'create forgetfulness' in the soul. Instead of remembering for themselves, Socrates warned, new readers were blindly trusting in 'external written characters.' The library was ruining the mind."

Which brings me to what I really wanted to do with this blog post. Several months ago, while surfing the interwebs, serendipity led me to a fascinating bit of Portland history involving early forms of media and communication.

Nearly a century ago, the Oregon Telephone Herald Company sought to deliver news and entertainment to subscribers via dedicated telephone lines. The advertisements promised to deliver, “Music, Songs, Parts of Play from Theatres, and our own special artists every Evening from 6 to 12 P.M., also the World’s and local news as it happens 8 A.M. to Midnight.”

“Demonstration parlors,” at which prospective subscribers could listen to transmissions, were set up in Portland, including one at the Hotel Multnomah and another in the 7th floor restroom at Meier & Frank, of all places.

The first practical system of telephone-based news and entertainment had been established in Budapest, Hungary in the 1893. Two years later, an article in Harper’s Weekly was critical, arguing that the city, “must be the finest place for illiterate, blind, bedridden, and incurably lazy people in the world. It would not appear, however, that a telephone newspaper is of value as time-saving device, or that it is any less devastating to the faculties than a modern journal which distributes its news in the ordinary way.”

A story titled, "The Pleasure Telephone," in the September 1898 issue of The Strand painted a rosier picture: “It will make millions merry who have never been merry before, and will democratize, if we may so write, many of the social luxuries of the rich. Those who object to the environment of the stage will be able to enjoy the theatre at home, and the fashionable concert will be looked forward to as eagerly by the poor as by their wealthy neighbours. The humblest cottage will be in immediate contact with the city, and the ‘private wire’ will make all classes kin."

(My favorite line: "Those who object to the environment of the stage will be able to enjoy the theatre at home...").

The entrepreneurs who tried to bring this new form of media to Portland failed. That failure could be blamed on technological limitations; amplifiers to boost the signal high enough to transmit by wire over distances had not been invented yet. Perhaps they were simply unable to bring the idea "to scale" with enough subscribers to cover the costs of building the infrastructure needed. A decade or so later, radios were in common use and the mega-media moguls were beginning to lick their lips and rub their hands together rapaciously.

Here we are, just a century later, tucking magical, miniature marvels of mass media into our pockets so we can be in touch at every possible moment. What's next?

Hat Tip to: for the background and advertisements for the Oregon Telephone Herald Co.


Unknown said...

Great post, MTC! Umm ... now, could you put out a digested version, please?

Miss Laura said...

My favorite line: "It will make millions merry who have never been merry before ..."

Now could you please call me on my Pleasure Telephone, otherwise known as my Land Line, and read me your post? I'll be waiting to take your call in my Demonstration Parlor.

David said...

It's too late, though. We cannot put the genie back in the bottle, the toothpaste back in the tube, the—hang on, I'm looking up a couple more analogies—Oh, cool! Did you know that "genie" comes from the Latin "genius," which meant "a sort of tutelary or guardian spirit thought to be assigned to each person at their birth"? Apparently the French translators of "One Thousand and One Nights" chose "genie" as the translation of "jinni" only because they sounded the same and seemed related; but "jinni" comes from an Arabic root word that meant "to hide, or conceal" and also led to the words "garden" and "Paradise." The first English translation of the story was "The Arabian Nights' Entertainment" in 1706, the year Johann Pachelbel died and Benjamin Franklin was born.

Jenny Wren said...

I love hearing about the history of Portland and also to see how marketing techniques have developed and shifted over the years.

I can relate to the loss of attention span, though I've been attributing it to constant interruptions by small children in the house. Read an entire newspaper article in one sitting? Unheard of!

My home computer recently crashed and it's been an eye opener. Sometimes I get twitchy just thinking about the email I can't check until 6pm when my husband comes home with his laptop. The world might be ending and I'll never know it! least not right away.

MightyToyCannon said...

Bob and Laura, your comments bring to mind an article in The Onion that had this as its lede*:

“Unable to rest their eyes on a colorful photograph or boldface heading that could be easily skimmed and forgotten about, Americans collectively recoiled Monday when confronted with a solid block of uninterrupted text. “,16932/

* Note to Readers: In an ongoing effort to feign journalistic bonafides, and out of respect for Bob and Laura work in a dying trade, I intentionally chose to use the archaic “lede” instead of “lead” in that sentence.

David, I doubly chuckled at your comment because this is a footnote I deleted before publishing this blog post:

“As evidence of the Attention Deficit Disorder inducing qualities of the internet, I paused from writing this narrative for a solid fifteen minutes to research the etymology of the word 'serendipity,' which is derived from 'Serendip,' the Persian name for Sri Lanka? Henry Walpole coined it in 1754, using it in a letter:

“It was once when I read a silly fairy tale, called 'The Three Princes of Serendip'**: as their highnesses traveled, they were always making discoveries, by accidents and sagacity, of things which they were not in quest of: for instance, one of them discovered that a camel blind of the right eye had traveled the same road lately, because the grass was eaten only on the left side, where it was worse than on the right—now do you understand serendipity? One of the most remarkable instances of this accidental sagacity (for you must observe that no discovery of a thing you are looking for, comes under this description) was of my Lord Shaftsbury, who happening to dine at Lord Chancellor Clarendon's, found out the marriage of the Duke of York and Mrs. Hyde, by the respect with which her mother treated her at table."

** This morning, I found additional information: "The Three Princes of Serendip" is the English version of the "Peregrinaggio di tre figluoli del re di Serendippo" published by Michele Tramezzino in Venice in 1557.

MightyToyCannon said...

Jenny, the other night (while surfing the web, watching TV and having a conversation with my wife), I was interrupted by sirens and flashing lights outside our window. I couldn't see what was going on, so immediately turned to Twitter to see if anyone else was commenting about it. I then went to a Portland Police website which puts recent 911 calls on a Google map. After about five minutes of frustration, I realized the answer could be found simply by walking outside and looking. Not only did I discover what was up (a fire at a nearby dentist office), but reality was all in 3D!

Miss Laura said...

I am so completely entertained now, I'm not sure where to start ... the genie/genius/jinni/garden/paradise etymology, the Pachelbel/Franklin collision year, the twitchy computer withdrawals, the lede spelling that I completely read right over like it was my right hand, highnesses and a one-eyed camel, the word sagacity, and the serendipitous fact that that was our dentist office! Bob tried to make an appointment the day after the fire so heard all about it via the old-fashioned phone method. He had to be farmed out. If you read the little oral surgery mention on Art Scatter ... well, he didn't have it done in the smoldering ruins across the street from you. Now if we had had a conversation in person tonight at the Drammys, we could have sorted all that out, but instead we'll have to chat via the intertubes by different time clocks ... speaking of which mine is set for 3.5 hours from now because someone snoring next to me has an early flight tomorrow/today. Otherwise, I'd be diving in to find out the origins of sagacity. BTW, The Pantsless Brother made me put on college applications that I wanted to study etymology so that they would look good and stand out, but my low success rate would suggest they thought I was just geeky.

Miss Laura said...

After much-interrupted sleep and a grumpy morning staggering through grocery aisles with a mug of coffee so that I could make Felix/Martha happy by maxing out my baking skills and helping him make little desserts with instant pudding and store-bought pie shells for feted (not fetid) relatives, I finally sat down to happily track down sagacity, only to be smitten by sacagious. According to, which I gather is a warm and fuzzy site for words, this definition -- check it out -- includes both Milton and Locke:

Webster's Revised Unabridged Dictionary (1913)

Sagacious \Sa*ga"cious\, a. [L. sagax, sagacis, akin to sagire to perceive quickly or keenly, and probably to E. seek. See Seek, and cf. Presage.] 1. Of quick sense perceptions; keen-scented; skilled in following a trail. Sagacious of his quarry from so far. --Milton. 2. Hence, of quick intellectual perceptions; of keen penetration and judgment; discerning and judicious; knowing; far-sighted; shrewd; sage; wise; as, a sagacious man; a sagacious remark. Instinct . . . makes them, many times, sagacious above our apprehension. --Dr. H. More. Only sagacious heads light on these observations, and reduce them into general propositions. --Locke. Syn: See Shrewd. -- Sa*ga"cious*ly, adv. -- Sa*ga"cious*ness, n.

OK, so that's more dictionaryish than word origin, but etymonline has this bad boy:

1540s, from M.Fr. sagacité, from L. sagacitatem (nom. sagacitas) "quality of being acute," from sagax (gen. sagacis) "of quick perception," related to sagus "prophetic," sagire "perceive keenly," from PIE base *sag- "to track down, trace, seek" (cf. O.E. secan "to seek;" see seek). Also used 17c.-18c. of animals, meaning "acute sense of smell."

Notice that it somehow includes tracking AND pie AND an acute sense of smell, which all curiously stirs my heart to think that etymology and pie and Large Smelly Boys all go together!

As if that's not enough, invites us to upload videos of word definitions.

Anyone notice that sagacity also spells -- hello! -- Saga City?

Unknown said...

I was sitting in a Chinese grocery/lunch joint in Oakland, CA early this afternoon eating some good cheap noodley ricey stuff and reading this string of lavishly erudite comments. I was dumbfounded, in a good way. I tried to leave a comment then, but my stupid Blackberry rebelled as usual.

MightyToyCannon said...

Miss Laura: Double points for using fetid and feted in the same sentence. When you mentioned "store-bought" pie shells, my mind went on a tangent of wondering about the regional differences between "store-bought" and "boughten." (I'm with the former and suspect the latter is southern).

While I'm at it, "tangent" reminds me of once having meandered into tracing the source of the word "meander." That was one twisting river. I wish I'd studied to be an etymologist, though I never cared much for bugs.

I spotted you and Bob across the room at the Drammy's and intended to wend my way in your direction (there's that meandering again). Unfortunately, all the glad-handing got out of hand and I lost sight of you. What an evening.