As I See It: We've Come a Long Way, Maybe
by Victor Rozek
When I started sixth grade, my parents decided to invest in my education. These were the days before parents loaded their children with computers and assorted electronic gadgets, which both simplify and complicate the process of learning. All of human knowledge had not yet been stuffed onto a CD; there were no search engines, and cell phones did not double as cameras and calculators. Back then, if you wanted to find out something, you actually had to reference a book.
But not just any book. Encyclopedias were king, and serious men dressed in conservative suits and clean white shirts sold them door to door. A set of 24 volumes in burgundy covers with gold-foil lettering, standing at formal attention in their own handsome cherry wood cabinet, made a proud addition to any striving lower-middle-class home. And many households prominently displayed them as proof of their commitment to a better life for their children. Here you go kids: the striving of humanity--captured, tamed, and condensed into two dozen handy volumes.
My parents were poor and could not afford such extravagance, but they did manage to find what car dealers now euphemistically call a "previously owned" set. The salesman apparently had sold a new set to one of his former customers, and we got the old one. My father brought the encyclopedias home, set them up in the living room, gave me an encouraging look, and never touched them again. Properly armed with several hundred pounds of Encyclopedia Britannica, I was now expected to excel in life.
I still have that set of encyclopedias, and am fully expecting to excel at any moment. So much work and research (not to mention the hopes of my parents) went into those volumes that I could never justify getting rid of them. For one thing, who would want them? And, besides, I use them occasionally, because they present material with a degree of formality and detail unavailable in an attention-span-diminished world, in which grave issues are reduced to bromides and sound bites. And they have both a historic and a nostalgic significance. Reading those ponderous pages offers a fascinating look at technologically ancient times and provides a wormhole to the quaint and now-distant values of the 1950s.
Along with the weighty volumes, the set came with a small assortment of magazine-sized supplements on various subjects of interest: political science, mathematics, medicine, and so forth. The other day I was paging through them and came across one I had forgotten. It was from 1957 and was titled "modern communication." On the cover is a black and white photograph of a woman seated at a desk, pen poised above paper, holding a telephone receiver to her ear. There is no computer screen, typewriter, laptop, or fax machine on her desk--just a blotter, a pad of paper, and the phone with its upright cradle, which looks like a miniature goal post. This was the poster girl for modern communication.
It was a frozen moment from our past, our forgotten history, and an instructive place to visit, if only for the humbling realization that in another half of a century today's accomplishments will most assuredly seem just as barren and mundane.
Although, by today's standards, the communications capabilities of the 1950s seem a modest improvement over early man's use of beacon fires and drum beats, I was surprised to find that the authors of "modern communication" were already acknowledging the shrinking-world phenomenon. "The world has been made so small that, insofar as communications are concerned, it is the equivalent of a single community in earlier ages," they declared. To us, the 1950s seem leisurely and scattered, when compared with our focused and driven era. Nonetheless, decades before necklaces of communication satellites adorned the skies above our planet, beaming their welcome and intrusive signals to every corner of the earth, the world was already becoming smaller.
The awareness that distances were shrinking was largely a byproduct of radio and television, still relatively new technologies that, for the first time, provided the means to communicate with millions of people simultaneously. In 1937 there were only "17 experimental television stations operating in the United States." Ten years later there were still only 18 commercial stations. But a decade after that, the number jumped to 488. Globally, by 1956, there were 750 to 800 stations broadcasting TV images, and U.S. households boasted having 42 million TV sets and 135 million radios.
As a measure of how times have changed, according to the 2002 census (whose figures are quite likely to be low), Americans now own 245,000,000 televisions and, on average, 5.8 radios per household. At 98 million households, that's about 573 million receivers, not including car radios. As for television and radio stations, their numbers no longer matter, because soon they all will be owned by Rupert Murdoch and, consequently, will all sound the same.
It's worth noting, however, that programming concerns have not substantially changed in half of a century. It seems that in every generation there are those who believe that each breakthrough in communication technology will be the salvation of the world. And they are always disappointed. The authors of "modern communication" could not help but comment: "Although much of the entertainment offered on radio and television programs is not considered to be on a very high cultural plane, there is evidence to support the claim that listeners are demanding higher standards of entertainment." Ha!
High cultural plane? These guys were optimists. It's probably best that none of them lived to see Jerry Springer or Janet Jackson. Or maybe they did, and that's what killed them.
But perhaps the greatest force shrinking the world was the telephone. Although largely forgotten, before Alexander Graham Bell told Mr. Watson he wanted him, there were a number of scientists working on the same invention. In 1860, almost 20 years earlier, Philipp Rebs created an ear-like device that transmitted "sound of a constant pitch," but, alas, would not carry the variations of sound that comprise speech. Three other inventors, Gray, Dolbear, and Drawbaugh, held patent claims and litigated against Bell in the courts. Bell's claim was ultimately upheld, giving telemarketers everywhere reason to celebrate and relegating the losing litigants to obscurity.
By 1915, Bell was yelling at Watson across the continent. New York and San Francisco were connected by wire, and Europe would soon follow. The first transatlantic cable was being spooled out, and operators (remember them?) manned giant switchboards, manually connecting callers. The whole system was, in fact, stitched together by wire. Endless miles of it. A central switchboard staffed by 120 operators required "4,000 miles of internal wiring and as many as 2,000,000 soldered connections." Intercity cables, about 2.5 inches thick, held 560 wires bound together in groups of four, each cable furnishing a mere 300 circuits. Three-electrode vacuum tubes were used as repeaters to reinforce the signal.
By 1957, there were an estimated 110,000,000 telephones in the world, and over half were in the U.S. The telephone, however, had not yet fully displaced the telegraph. At the height of the Second World War, the telegraph industry was processing some "200,000,000 telegrams and 10,000,000 money orders" per year. More than a decade later, it was still operating "more than 3,600,000 miles of telegraph circuits."
Although seldom thought of in these terms, the modern telegraph was an efficient adaptation of ancient human telegraph systems first used in Persia and Gaul. The principle was simple if not particularly elegant: Men would shout messages from signal tower to signal tower, learning "just the right pitch of the voice necessary to carry the greatest distances." An interesting variation of the human telegraph, according to the scholars at the Encyclopedia Britannica, was developed in the Canary Islands. There, "inhabitants had a sort of whistling language which could be heard far across the valleys and gorges of the islands." Not unlike two modems linking up across the ether.
The telephone would, of course, ultimately overwhelm both the telegraph and whistling natives. Again, quoting from the 2002 census: "there are now 245,000,000 residential telephone access lines in the U.S." And, according to a Web site that tracks wireless subscribers, as of a week ago there were 156,494,078 folks carrying cell phones. The days when wire was king appear to be over.
There is a saying that not all change is progress, but there is no progress without change. Nowhere is that more true than in the information and communication technology sectors. Our privacy may be eroding, and we suffer from information overload, but with a predictable inevitability, the old bleeds into the new, and what was once wondrous becomes commonplace, and is replaced by something more wondrous still.
I look at the woman on the cover of "modern communication." She is wearing what appears to be a black dress with a white collar. Her fingernails are short and painted. She has blond hair and a serenely beautiful face. Behind her on the wall is a portion of a framed map. Whatever part of the world it depicts no longer exists as it did in the 1950s. But I find myself hoping that she still exists. She would be near 70 now. Perhaps she is one of the 156 million people armed with an obligatory cell phone, watching one of Rupert Murdock's interchangeable clones blabbering their scripted banalities. But I hope not. I hope that she long ago discovered that the most meaningful communication comes not from wires or satellites or boxes full of talking heads, but is delivered by a person sitting very close to you and can be found in the silence between words.