Transformative technology

Another technology was said to overcome key barriers between the voter and the candidate: the barriers of distance, of time, of inertia, and of crowd psychology. It brought to the physically remote voter a type of first-hand information he had never had before.

There was great excitement. Would this new technology prick into quicker, more coherent action our unwieldy democratic giant? Or with its shining novelty would its seeming power too be gone? What were the inherent political potentialities of this new technology? Aside from the immense publicity value which its newness gave it, what could it actually effect in a presidential election?

The new technology was remarkable. It had found a way to dispense with political middlemen. In a fashion it had restored the demos upon which republican government is founded. No candidate would be able to stand up to it who was unprepared to enlighten the electorate. It potentially gave to every member of the electorate the possibility of a direct reaction to the candidates themselvs. It reproduced to some degree, for the first time in the United States, the conditions of the Athenian democracy where every voter, for himself, could hear and judge the candidates.

The year was 1924: “…America finds herself this year in the act of virtually choosing her chief executive by an instrument that was up to a brief two years ago generally considered a freakish fad.”

“Politics,” the newspapers said, was “radio’s next big job.” “Is the radio, heavy with its destiny, leading us to a day when all men will join in to actively work for the righteous government of the land they live in?”

The days of the old-time campaign were numbered if not entirely gone. All the notables of the party whizzed their persuasive words via wireless.

And all the people would benefit: “Let a legislator now commit himself to some policy that is obviously senseless, and the editorial writers must first proclaim his imbecility to the community. But let the radiophone in the legislative halls of the future flash his absurdities into space and a whole state hears them at once.”

Thus informed, the citizenry would not be able to plead ignorance. “[R]adio can and should bring to practically every citizen full knowledge of the issues which affect the lives of the American people. Through its aid the candidates can speak directly to the people. No longer can any man or woman entitled to a vote conscientiously plead ignorance of the issues involved as an excuse for remaining home on election day.”

And the citizenry would march to the polls. “Broadcasting the proceedings of the great National Conventions has aroused such national interest that the greatest poll of votes ever cast at a Presidential election will result.” (Actually, the 1924 election had the lowest voter turnout of any election to that time — 48.9%.)

In 1924, we were absolutely confident that the voters were going to be in the driver’s seat.

“Because of the far-reaching radio these hundred-per cent. American institutions – fixed political methods, bosses and oratory – are going to have to be done over into a twentieth cenentury mold, to meet the exacting taste of Brooklyn newsboys, of college professors and of home-keeping females. Whether conditions will be improved orwrecked by the revolution is beside the point. The thing is going to happen. It is happening.”

A revolution was underway. “Here is the entirely new political public that the radio has tapped. It is not necessarily a more intelligent public. But at any rate it is a new one and it has never been broken to the seasoned old claptrap. It is a large public, usually in political prognostication assigned to the contingent of General Apathy. It can no longer be trusted to stay there. And that is one reason why the politicians are up against a revolution.”

3 thoughts on “Transformative technology

  1. George Orwell, Poetry and the microphone:
    “In broadcasting your audience is conjectural, but it is an audience of one. Millions may be listening, but each is listening alone, or as a member of a small group, and each has (or ought to have) the feeling that you are speaking to him individually. More than this, it is reasonable to assume that your audience is sympathetic, or at least interested, for anyone who is bored can promptly switch you off by turning a knob. But though presumably sympathetic, the audience has no power over you. It is just here that a broadcast differs from a speech or a lecture. On the platform, as anyone used to public speaking knows, it is almost impossible not to take your tone from the audience. It is always obvious within a few minutes what they will respond to and what they will not, and in practice you are almost compelled to speak for the benefit of what you estimate as the stupidest person present, and also to ingratiate yourself by means of the ballyhoo known as ‘personality’. If you don’t do so, the result is always an atmosphere of frigid embarrassment.” […]
    “I have suggested the radio as a more hopeful medium, and I have pointed out its technical advantages, particularly from the point of view of the poet. The reason why such a suggestion sounds hopeless at first hearing is that few people are able to imagine the radio being used for the dissemination of anything except tripe. People listen to the stuff that does actually dribble from the loud-speakers of the world, and conclude that it is for that and nothing else that the wireless exists. Indeed the very word ‘wireless’ calls up a picture either of roaring dictators or of genteel throaty voices announcing that three of our aircraft have failed to return. Poetry on the air sounds like the Muses in striped trousers. Nevertheless one ought not to confuse the capabilities of an instrument with the use it is actually put to. Broadcasting is what it is, not because there is something inherently vulgar, silly and dishonest about the whole apparatus of microphone and transmitter, but because all the broadcasting that now happens all over the world is under the control of governments or great monopoly companies which are actively interested in maintaining the status quo and therefore in preventing the common man from becoming too intelligent. Something of the same kind has happened to the cinema, which, like the radio, made its appearance during the monopoly stage of capitalism and is fantastically expensive to operate. In all the arts the tendency is similar. More and more the channels of production are under the control of bureaucrats, whose aim is to destroy the artist or at least to castrate him. This would be a bleak outlook if it were not that the totalitarianisation which is now going on, and must undoubtedly continue to go on, in every country of the world, is mitigated by another process which it was not easy to foresee even as short a time as five years ago.”

    It’s who’s in control and the two-way nature of the net that make the difference

  2. Thanks, Kevin.

    In fact, interactivity was the dream of radio. Listen to this voice from 1924:

    “The radio has furnished us a conversational meeting ground. But it has not yet allowed us to any extent to converse. Unlike the telephone, and to some degree even the newspaper, it is not yet a medium for exchange of opinion. how far it can directly accelerate political progress until there is more mutuality, more free interchange, until more of the groups of radio listeners have also transmitting facilities, until it can be used by groups as a medium of mutual adjustment, as the telephone is used today by individuals, is still in doubt.”

    The Internet fulfills this great dream. We all have transmitting facilities now. All of our groups can use the Internet as a “medium of mutual adjustment.” Just look at Facebook. In fact, the interactive networked screen, with its possibility of displaying graphics, allows us to get a sense of our group’s mind – visibly – for the very first time. TechPresident.com, for example, shows pictures of the intensity of online commentary about the candidates. These pictures are compelling, and if they could be connected to action real change could happen.

    Appreciate the Orwell quote very much. Susan

  3. […] Another amazing person, Susan Crawford, on Transformative Technology and a more recent post on Verizon and […]

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