Wireless 1.0

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.”

6 thoughts on “Wireless 1.0

  1. Merus

    Funny, I could have sworn there was a different post here earlier regarding the response to the Forbes article.

  2. Barry

    Utopia, what a great place! In education, the chapter “Visiting Day, 2001” in George Leonard’s Education and Ectasy (1968) is tops on my list. Here’s a bit describing children working in Leonard’s Basics Dome: “Sally, we notice on the electronic tablet on her chair, is only five minutes into her learning session. There is a boy of about six years old on her left who is deep into a simple calculus session. On Sally’s right, a girl of four or five is dialoguing about primitive cultures.”

  3. dave rogers

    Much of what I read about the web and its potential for human transformation reminds me of the Wizard of Oz, as Dorothy and company set out to seek, from a powerful externality, solutions to their individual dilemmas. Of course the Wizard is revealed to be nothing more than a humbug, and that which they sought from some “Wizard” is ultimately shown to be found only within themselves.

    It’s an odd thing that our faith in our creations always seems greater than our faith in ourselves. Perhaps because it always seems easier to create a better machine than a better self.

    I like your posts. Keep “blurting out the truth.”

  4. Bill Boulden

    This article resonated particularly deeply with me, for my father was one of the last hangers-on of Ham Radio until it could truly no longer hold a candle to the internet. As late as 1995 he still went to ham radio conventions and sought long-out-of-production obscure tubes to replace ones that had failed after forty years…

    The big advantage of the ham radio over the internet, he thought, was that there was a minimum level of intelligence required to get on it… a person needed to have the patience and mental capacity to learn a (by today’s standards) boring and unrewarding code as well as understand a decent number of things about the electromagnetic spectrum, so they could figure out during what times of the week and levels of solar activity they could broadcast to a certain part of the world… as opposed to the internet, which not longer after its invention saw the influx of the “omg u go girl ur so hawttt lol” crowd…

  5. Gilbert Pilz

    Interesting parallels and differences between radio and the net. The bit of ham radio that I observed seemed closer to IRC than to blogging, etc. Your central point is obviously true. If better access to information made us into better people we would have seen the effects after the spread of the first printing presses (in, say, a decrease in armed conflicts?)

    “But it is vital to remember that information – in the sense of raw data – is not knowledge; that knowledge is not wisdom; and that wisdom is not foresight. But information is the first essential step to all of these.”

    – Arthur C. Clarke

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