As anybody who’s read my work knows, I’m fascinated by the utopianism that springs up whenever a major new technology comes along. I recently picked up a collection of essays on this theme, called Imagining Tomorrow, which was published in 1986 by the MIT Press. One of the essays, by Susan J. Douglas, looks at the excitement set off by Marconi’s introduction of radio – the “wireless telegraph” – to the American public in 1899. “Wireless held a special place in the American imagination precisely because it married idealism and adventure with science,” she writes.
The invention stirred dreams of a more perfect world, expressed in language that won’t sound unfamiliar to today’s readers:
Popular Science Monthly observed: “The nerves of the whole world are, so to speak, being bound together, so that a touch in one country is transmitted instantly to a far-distant one.” Implicit in this organic metaphor was the belief that a world so physically connected would become a spiritual whole with common interests and goals. The New York Times added: “Nothing so fosters and promotes a mutual understanding and a community of sentiment and interests as cheap, speedy and convenient communication.” Articles suggested that this technology could make men more rational; with better communications available, misunderstandings could be avoided. These visions suggested that machines, by themselves, could change history; the right invention could help people overcome human foibles and weaknesses.
The Atlantic Monthly even published a sonnet titled “Wireless Telegraphy” that ended with these lines:
Somewhere beyond the league-long silences,
Somewhere across the spaces of the years,
A heart will thrill to thee, a voice will bless,
Love will awake and life be perfected!
The rise of wireless also set off a popular movement to democratize media, as hundreds of thousands of “amateur operators” took to the airwaves. It was the original blogosphere. “On every night after dinner,” wrote Francis Collins in the 1912 book Wireless Man, “the entire country becomes a vast whispering gallery.” The amateurs, Douglas reports, “claimed to be surrogates for ‘the people.'”
But it didn’t last. By the 1920s, radio had become “firmly embedded in a corporate grid.” People happily went back to being passive consumers: “In the 1920s there was little mention of world peace or of anyone’s ability to track down a long-lost friend or relative halfway around the world. In fact, there were not many thousands of message senders, only a few … Thus, through radio, Americans would not transcend the present or circumvent corporate networks. In fact they would be more closely tied to both.”