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: earlyradiohistory.us for the background and advertisements for the Oregon Telephone Herald Co.