Think the world is getting smaller, sometimes even to the point of claustrophobia? You’re not alone. Furthermore, people have always felt that way. The technological pace keeps quickening at an ever-quickening pace. But today we may have reached a point where we can actually notice the acceleration in our lifetimes, for an inchoate feeling of turbulence just outside our grasp. It feels strange because it is strange. But where mass media are concerned, strange is normal.
I think the first real jolt in the media was the invention of movable type. It made books and newspapers easier and cheaper to produce (if much less breathtaking than those monk-inscribed illuminated manuscripts), and it released them from the arcane possession of the privileged and the consecrated. But movable type still had to be set by hand, letter by letter, an excruciatingly laborious process that limited daily newspapers to eight pages until the late 19th century. That’s when the “linotype,” a machine that could set individual letters much faster than any human, blew open the newspaper business and made possible the much greater proliferation of much fatter daily editions. But the next quantum leap in mass communication was already upon us.
“What hath God wrought!” is a phrase from the Book of Numbers (23:23, to be exact), but it’s far better known as the first Morse code message transmitted in the U.S. On May 24, 1844, the “wire” arrived (at least the Baltimore-Washington telegraph line) and changed everything yet again. We had received our news with a time delay ever since town criers were our anchormen. But now the transmission of news had become nearly instantaneous. Newspapers’ timeliness was transformed by the telegraph, especially when press barons got together to share field reporting: the Associated Press and Reuters were formed almost immediately, and the United Press Association and International News Service (which later merged to become UPI) just after the turn of the century. It was amazing: today’s front page could tell readers anywhere what had happened yesterday — or, in the case of afternoon editions, what had happened just this morning. Paul Revere was so passé.
Reading a book or a newspaper is a private, individual act that you can enjoy any time you like. The next step forced the audience to adhere to a schedule. When the first AM radio broadcast was achieved in 1906, the buildout of national networks was still some twenty years away. But for nearly three decades thereafter, commercial radio was far and away the most popular form of home entertainment. Families gathered around the box at nighttime for dramas, comedies, music, and the occasional chat from President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Radio listening was still a private, individual (maybe with relatives) act, but now the event was happening everywhere simultaneously. Never before had it been possible to assemble a mass audience in real time. The implications for marketers were enormous.
Movies were once far more important in our cultural life than they are today. In 1930, nearly two thirds of Americans attended a movie at least once a week. But movie attendance peaked in 1946, with 90 million tickets sold, and it isn’t hard to finger a culprit: the emerging medium that could bring movies into your home, and was so mesmerizing that it actually created addicts. Television. The baby boomer generation was the first cohort of Americans who were weaned on the boob tube, which strained for lowest-common-denominator advertising-supported programming and squandered the dramatic potential of pioneers like Paddy Chayefsky, Reginald Rose and Rod Serling. But then came a series of new media explosions that are still reverberating today — and reforming our world faster than we can process the alteration.
When I worked at Bantam Books, I became friends with Ian Ballantine, the company’s founder, whose office was near mine. Ian was in his late seventies, but unlike most people who have attained that age, he didn’t sit around grousing about some vanished “good old days.” He was the most forward-thinking septuagenarian I’ve ever known, embracing progress with the fervor of an adolescent. One day I asked him, what’s the biggest technological leap of your lifetime? Without hesitation he answered, “Aviation.” He batted the question back to me. “The personal computer,” I said. But that was some twenty years ago. Now I still wouldn’t hesitate, but my answer would be different. Now I’d have to say, “the Internet.”
We would still be restricted to processing words and slinging spreadsheets were it not for the power of near-instantaneous individual communication, which has come a long way in a short time. When Ian and I were chatting, a generation ago, I was Bantam’s titular editor for Arthur C. Clarke. Sadly, I didn’t get to work on any fiction with Sir Arthur, but there are many housekeeping duties inside a big publishing house that require regular contact — for example, we always informed the author and agent whenever a book of theirs went back to press. Occasionally I had questions. But I was in New York and Sir Arthur lived in Sri Lanka, halfway around the world. One day I noticed a PC connected to a dial-up modem, the only one on our floor. I brought in one of those formerly ubiquitous AOL disks and sent Sir Arthur an email. By the time I got to the office the next day, my answer was already waiting for me. We went back and forth like this, one emailing while the other slept. The main reason I remember this is that one of Arthur C. Clarke’s replies marveled at this new super-speedy form of communication; it was “so science fictional!” This from the man who proposed the geosynchronous communications satellite! And by now, having to wait overnight for a reply already seems rather quaint, doesn’t it?
Digital technology, and its communication at electronic speed, are upending entire industries and altering the way we process information. Mass media are still mass media, but we also consume them as private, individual acts: the great, almost unimaginable numbers of users represent an aggregate, not a coordinated movement. Pondering is becoming extinct: whenever a group is unable to remember a specific fact, somebody will whip out a smartphone and the answer is instants away. The major movie studios are now forced to focus on blockbusters, the presentation of spectacle, because contemporary home entertainment gear is getting close to replicating the experience of seeing a movie in a theater; it’s up to the moguls to top that somehow. The “Big Five” book publishers have all but abandoned the “midlist” in favor of “brand name” authors or newsmakers whose candles burn briefly indeed. Newspaper print editions are shrinking and dying, and with them goes local reportage that helps us sift truth from chatter.
Certainly there are upsides. The rise of digital media can be empowering. You might not have $100 million to spend on a superhero movie, but it’s cheaper and faster to shoot a modestly-budgeted independent film than ever before. You no longer need to pay a kingly hourly rate to a fancy recording studio or mastering plant. You can self-publish a book and have it on sale at the largest retailer on earth within a few minutes. You can become your own newspaper, specializing on a location or niche interest. Even radio is making a comeback with the rise of podcasts. There’s lots to love.
The problem is that media are inundating us, faster and faster, led by the din of “commenters” whom we’d cross the room to escape at any cocktail party — yet when we do escape them we escape dissenting views, which isn’t healthy for a society. We can feel our own attention spans contracting; what will life be like for children who have never known anything else? When will we finally lose the patience to sit through a two-hour movie, let alone a 500-page book? Or pay attention to somebody with whom we emphatically disagree?
All we know for sure is that we don’t know. “The medium is the message,” said Marshall McLuhan (I just confirmed the spelling of his last name on Google), but with a world’s worth of information at our fingertips, maybe instead it’s become the massage: lulling us into thinking we’re smarter and more erudite than we actually are. Absent a nuclear attack’s electromagnetic pulse, there’s no going back. We’re headed into a world almost unthinkable only a quarter century ago, moving faster than the ability of most futurists to speculate. We can only watch in wonder and try our best to enjoy the ride.