[Paleopsych] NYT: Confounding Machines: How the Future Looked

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Confounding Machines: How the Future Looked


    SMALL children and prescientific peoples, it is said, employ magical
    thinking to deal with a world they can't understand or control. But
    magical thinking isn't limited to children or those who are
    indulgently seen as childlike. In an age of technology, which produces
    a constant flood of incomprehensible phenomena, such forms of thinking
    may be an occasional necessity for everyone.

    In the August issue of Wired, for example, Kevin Kelly celebrates the
    10th anniversary of the initial public offering of Netscape stock,
    which he takes as marking the start of the Internet revolution. The
    Internet, in Mr. Kelly's evangelical eyes, is alive, overwhelming,
    sublime and, finally, magical. It has created, he writes, "a new type
    of thinking - part human and part machine - found nowhere else on the
    planet or in history."

    Three thousand years hence, he concludes, historians will say: "The
    Machine provided ... a new mind for an old species. It was the

    One way to look at such a claim - a common one among Internet
    enthusiasts - is through the writer Arthur C. Clarke's Third Law, from
    his 1962 book "Profiles of the Future: An Inquiry Into the Limits of
    the Possible." It states: "Any sufficiently advanced technology is
    indistinguishable from magic." And in fact, Mr. Kelly's reaction has
    been preceded, over the past 100 years or so, by similar reactions to
    the introduction of motion pictures, radio and television. Each in
    turn so astonished those who encountered it that magic - black or
    white - seemed the only explanation.

    In fairness to the human mind, each of these technologies was, and is,
    uncanny. Nineteenth-century audiences gasped when a beam of light
    conjured an onrushing train into existence, and there was something
    even weirder about radio, which millions saw as a miracle that plucked
    sounds and voices out of the "ether."

    Another common response to technological innovation has been to
    predict where it will lead, which is also an assertion of control over
    it. But as the following excerpts show, the crystal balls are almost
    always cracked. With some startling exceptions, prognosticators are
    usually dead wrong.

    This is something worth remembering in the midst of today's revolution
    - the rise of the Internet and the rapid spread of broadband
    connections. These technologies have already had a profound effect on
    everything from presidential elections to the music business to the
    doctor-patient relationship. How far they will reach and to what
    extent they will alter the terrain of daily life is anyone's guess,
    but it's a fair bet most of the guesses made by the growing industry
    of pundits and consultants will be wide of the mark.


    M. J. Caveney, "New Voices in the Wilderness."
    I am in a log shack in Canada's northland. Only yesterday to be out
    here was to be out of the world. But no longer. The radiophone has
    changed all that. Remember where I am and then you can realize how
    "homey" it is to hear a motherly voice carefully describing in detail
    just how to make the pie crust more flaky.

    Velimir Khlebnikov, Russian poet, "The Radio of the Future."
    The Radio of the Future - the central tree of our consciousness - will
    inaugurate the new ways to cope with our endless undertakings and will
    unite all mankind.
    The main radio station, that stronghold of steel, where clouds of
    wires cluster like strands of hair, will surely be protected by a sign
    with a skull and crossbones and the familiar word "Danger," since the
    least disruption of radio operations would produce a mental blackout
    over the entire country, a temporary loss of consciousness.

    Bruce Bliven, "The Ether Will Now Oblige," in The New Republic.
    There will be only one orchestra left on earth, giving nightly
    worldwide concerts; when all universities will be combined into one
    super-institution, conducting courses by radio for students in
    Zanzibar, Kamchatka and Oskaloose; when, instead of newspapers,
    trained orators will dictate the news of the world day and night, and
    the bedtime story will be told every evening from Paris to the sleepy
    children of a weary world; when every person will be instantly
    accessible day or night to all the bores he knows, and will know them
    all: when the last vestiges of privacy, solitude and contemplation
    will have vanished into limbo.

    J. M. McKibben, "New Way to Make Americans."
    Today this nation of ours is slowly but surely being conquered, not by
    a single enemy in open warfare, but by a dozen insidious (though often
    unconscious) enemies in peace. Millions of foreigners were received
    into the country, with little or no thought given to their
    assimilation. But now the crisis is upon us; and we must face it
    without a great leader. Perhaps no man could mold the 120 million
    people in a harmonious whole, bound together by a strong national
    consciousness: but in the place of a superhuman individual, the genius
    of the last decade has provided a force - and that force is radio.

    Waldemar Kaempffert, "The Social Destiny of Radio."
    It so happens that the United States and Great Britain have taken the
    lead in broadcasting. If that lead is maintained it follows that
    English must become the dominant tongue. Compared with our efforts at
    mass entertainment and mass education, European competition is
    pathetic. All ears may eventually be cocked to hear what the United
    States and Great Britain have to say. Europe will find it desirable,
    even necessary, to learn English.

    The New York Times on how radio might affect voters.
    It is believed that brief pithy statements as to the positions of the
    parties and candidates, which reach the emotions through the minds of
    millions of radio listeners, will play an important part in the race
    to the White House.

    Martin Codel, "Radio and Its Future."
    That anything man can imagine he can do in the ethereal realm of radio
    will probably be an actual accomplishment some day. Perhaps radio, or
    something akin to radio, will one day give us mortals telepathic or
    occult senses!


    A journalist in Paris after viewing the premiere of Louis Lumière's
    Photography has ceased to record immobility. It perpetuates the image
    of movement. When these gadgets are in the hands of the public, when
    anyone can photograph the ones who are dear to them, not just in their
    immobile form, but with movement, action, familiar gestures and the
    words out of their mouths, then death will no longer be absolute,

    The projectionist of the first Lumière screening in New York.
    You had to have lived these moments of collective exaltation, have
    attended these thrilling screenings in order to understand just how
    far the excitement of the crowd could go. With the flick of a switch,
    I plunge several thousand spectators into darkness. Each scene passes,
    accompanied by tempestuous applause; after the sixth scene, I return
    the hall to light. The audience is shaking. Cries ring out.
    Maxim Gorky, on seeing the Lumière Cinématographe in Nizhny Novgorod.
    Last evening, I was in the Kingdom of the Shadows. If one could only
    convey the strangeness of this world. A world without color and sound.
    Everything here- the earth, water, and air, the trees, the
    people-everything is mad of a monotone gray. Gray rays of sunlight in
    a gray sky, gray eyes in a gray face, leaves as gray as cider. Not
    life, but the shadow of life. Not life's movement, but a sort of mute
    Their movements are full of vital energy and so rapid that you
    scarcely see them, but their smiles have nothing of life in them. You
    see their facial muscles contract but their laugh cannot be heard. A
    life is born before you, a life deprived of sound and the specter of
    color - a gray and noiseless life - a wan and cut-rate life.

    A Universal Studio advertisement at the creation of Hollywood's star
    What is the earthly use of showing pictures posed by amateurs and
    unknowns when you can get the very best known stars of the screen by
    using that Universal program? ...
    The photograph of any star on this wonderful list if displayed in your
    lobby with the words "Here Today" is positively bound to boost your

    The New York Times, from an interview with D. W. Griffith.
    The time will come, and in less than 10 years, when the children in
    the public schools will be taught practically everything by moving
    pictures. Certainly they will never be obliged to read history again.
    Imagine a public library of the near future, for instance. There will
    be long rows of boxes of pillars, properly classified and indexed, of
    course. At each box a push button and before each box a seat. Suppose
    you wish to "read up" on a certain episode in Napoleon's life.
    Instead of consulting all the authorities, wading laboriously through
    a host of books, and ending bewildered, without a clear idea of
    exactly what did happen and confused at every point by conflicting
    opinions about what did happen, you will merely seat yourself at a
    properly adjusted window, in a scientifically prepared room, press the
    button, and actually see what happened.

    James Quirk, Photoplay magazine
    We talk of the worth, the service, the entertaining power, the
    community value, the recreative force, the educational influence, the
    civilizing and commercial possibilities of the motion picture.
    And everyone has, singularly enough, neglected to mention its rarest
    and subtlest beauty: "Silence."


    The reaction of a London schoolgirl after watching a demonstration of
    And then we all clapped politely because we were all rather frightened
    of television. I think the trouble was that we believed that, if they
    could make this film, they could see into our houses. We could see
    them; they could see us.

    Rex Lambert in "The Listener."
    Television won't matter in your lifetime or mine.
    J.C. Furnas , "The Next Hundred Years."
    It is my hope, and I see no reason why it should not be realized, to
    be able to go to an ordinary movie theater when some great national
    event is taking place across the country and see on the screen the
    sharp image of the action reproduced - at the same instant it occurs.
    This waiting for the newsreels to come out is a bit tiresome for the
    20th century. Some time later I hope to be able to take my inaugurals,
    prize fights and football games at home. I expect to do it
    satisfactorily and cheaply. Only under those conditions can a
    television get into my house.

    David Sarnoff, the chairman of RCA, at the televised opening of the
    RCA Pavilion at the World's Fair in New York.
    Now we add sight to sound. It is with a feeling of humbleness that I
    come to this moment of announcing the birth, in this country, of a new
    art so important in its implications that it is bound to affect all
    society. It is an art which shines like a torch in a troubled world.

    New York Times editorial
    The problem with television is that people must sit and keep their
    eyes glued to the screen; the average American family hasn't time for
    it. Therefore the showmen are convinced that for this reason, if no
    other, television will never be a serious competitor of broadcasting.

    Thomas Hutchinson, "Here is Television: Your Window on the World."
    Television means the world is your home and in the homes of all the
    people of the world. It is the greatest means of communication ever
    developed by the mind of man. It should do more to develop friendly
    neighbors, and to bring understanding and peace on earth, than any
    other single material force in the world today.
    Samuel Cuff, general manager of WABD in New York.
    There are certain people who have maintained that the American
    housewife would turn television on early in the morning just as she
    does the radio, and leave it on through the day and most of the night.
    That, of course, is hardly so, because the benefits of television can
    be derived only when you are looking at it directly and not doing
    anything else. The housewife will not very long remains a housewife
    who attempts to watch television programs all afternoon and evening
    instead of cooking or darning socks.

    T.S. Eliot
    It is a medium of entertainment which permits millions of people to
    listen to the same joke at the same time, and yet remain lonesome.

    Sources Radio: Radio Voices, by Michele Hilmes (1997, Minnesota
    University Press) ; The King of Time, by Velimir Khlebnikov, edited by
    Charlotte Douglas (1985, Harvard University Press); New Media and
    Popular Imagination, by William Boddy (Oxford University Press, 2004);
    Radio Lessons for the Internet by Martin Spinelli, in Postmodern
    Culture, January 1996. Television: Television: A History, by Francis
    Wheen (Century, 1985); The New York Public Library Book of 20th
    Century American Quotations (Wiley, 1992); A Pictorial History of
    Television, by Irving Settel and William Laas (Grosset & Dunlap,
    1969); A Godlike Presence: The Impact of Radio on the 1920s and 1930s,
    by Tom Lewis. (OAH Magazine of History 6, Spring 1992); Here Is
    Television: Your Window on the World (Hastings House, 1946); The New
    York Post (Sept 22, 1963). Film: Birth of the Motion Picture, by
    Emmanuelle Toulet (Abrams, 1995); Kino: A History of Russian and
    Soviet Film, by Jay Leyda (Princeton University Press, 1983) ; From
    Peepshow to Palace: The Birth of American Film, by David Robinson
    (Columbia University Press, 1995); The Parades Gone By, by Kevin
    Brownlow (Knopf, 1968)

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