Making Sense of all the Interference

Farm Families in Rocking Chairs
Farm Family Listening to Radio, c. 1925-1930. USDA Extension Service. Library of Congress.

New technology always gives us something to talk about. Whether you love the latest gadget or think its a sign of the fall of civilization, we all seem to have strong opinions about tech, especially when it disrupts old ways of doing things.

I enjoy reading old responses to new inventions. And there are plenty of them out there so I don’t think I’ll ever run out of these historical hot takes.

Seeing how older generations responded to new technology is helpful for us today in a few ways. They can show us how our relationship with certain technologies have evolved and how people have used the same things differently over time. Historical writings on new technology can also show give us ideas on how we might think about and respond to new tech that becomes available in our lifetimes.

Seeing what previous generations thought of telegraphs, radio, or the assembly line back in the day better prepares us to respond to recent innovations like mobile technology, algorithm systems, and new social media platforms.

These records are a roadmap for us as we drive into the 21st century, because you KNOW there are many new technologies awaiting us down the road. We won’t fully understand them until we’ve gotten a chance to interact with them for a while and see how it goes.

The dawn of radio in the early 20th century is, I think, one of the best inventions to study to prepare ourselves for the worlds of tomorrow. This communication medium built on existing technologies, but was also a distinctly new thing. It was quickly adopted by millions, launched new industries, and had seismic impacts on virtually every corner of society. Historians are still unpacking the influence radio had on everything from advertising and entertainment to politics and the domestic sphere.

Of course, radio also spurred many lively discussions. There were radio critics, radio champions, and the merely radio-curious. Everyone was trying to understand what radio meant and what its place would be in the world. I’ve previously featured writings on radio from its early years (1920s and early 1930s) that approached radio with humor, with suspicion, and with greedy eyes ready to make a profit on it.

Here is one more think-piece on radio, written by journalist William Bolitho in the late 1920s. He has an interesting take what he saw as a rift between intended audience of radio programs and the actual people listening to the programs. Radios originally didn’t have the power to broadcast far from their stations and you had to be local to listen. But by the late 20s powerful broadcasting tech let radios reach faraway lands and listeners very different from themselves. What happens, Bolitho wonders, when you can listen to stations anywhere on your radio? What happens when you know that your program will be heard by people all over the world and not just your neighbors?

Haymaking to Radio
“Modern Maude Muller haymaking to radio near Butler, N.J. 1923. Library of Congress.

Our age, which is cursed with inhuman savagery and want, also allows us superhuman pleasures. The most terrific of all our compensations for living in these days is the unnatural power of “listening in.” Its enjoyment is as general as taxes; like so significant a number of out modern inventions, its benefits go as far as the limits of the race, and have no partiality for a class. The workmen, the clerk, whose means so seldom extend to a first class cinema, still less to those rare and expensive occasions when a real singer is singing real music, are the very favorites of the marvel.

The great inventors and scientists, like the greatest business men, are often universal benefactors beside whom the most renowned saints of religion cut a poor figure. The glorious perfecter of Radio has done more in a year for drab millions the world over than all the amiable missionaries of the nineteenth century together.

His mark is the antenna wire, which for countless miles of hopeless backdoors is hung out to mark that there lives one who has broken through loneliness, conquered poverty and forgotten misery in possession of a pragmatical secret that was out of reach even of the dreams of ancient magicians. This wire that slants or sags from millions of chimney pots to forlorn trees, or the biscuit-tin roofs of chicken-sheds, or simply to the copings of soot-rooted walls, ties its owner to the life of the whole world, from which he seemed endlessly separated; and by the most immediate and living of senses, not cold sight but human and familiar hearing.

So night after night dumb millions fiddle with knobs and hear with ravishment, as if they were behind a thin door, the voices of the supreme culture of their times. And over backs of countless dreary houses are strung like metallic spider webs these ennobling wires; a new and graceful ornament to the somewhat infernal architecture of our times.

Even in my remote village in France one can share in the bonus which science has given mankind. Here, too, all the voices of all the world come nightly. With a twirl of a vulcanite wheel, as delicately engraved as a leaf under a microscope, one hears ever nation in turn. At a nearly ruled distance of millimetres from the scratching, droning call of Paris is London herself; Daventry, Frankfurt, Barcelona, Rome. After out midnight, instantaneously across an infinite waste of waves, is America.

Sometimes tumbling upon each other in the whole gambit are a dozen great nations to be overheard, in full practice of their separate cultures, to decide whose relative values we fought four years. As yet the army of small talents and great tacts, who rush joyfully on any possibility of the one new career we have invented, National Propaganda, have for some reason missed the Radio; so for a time the listener can hear undoctored truth about the rival cultures. Daventry talks to Englishmen, as yet oblivious that under the eaves are millions of foreigners to be impressed, and patriotically deceived on the education and culture that the nation enjoys; and so with all the rest.

Perhaps all these states soon will realize that strangers are watching them in their intimate amusements, and will begin to show off. Perhaps until directional wireless comes they will have to continue in their naivete, for all propaganda must have two versions, and the home folk might not care to sacrifice their amusement for an impression to be made abroad.

Today, then, the wireless is indiscreet. Berlin can hear, almost blushing, the clumsy and unpoetic rubbish of London’s “Children’s Hour.” Rome can hear the chant, which lasts for hours, of Paris Bourse prices, for which the Frenchman, like the fabulous miner with his bathroom, meanly uses an exquisite luxury. The squalls of the tenors who never leave Rome clash and “interfere” with the maudlin waltzes that Hamburg really hums.

The Radio unites Europe in more than one respect. Most of all in the evening, when each nation sends through limpid ether the flower of art which gives civilization meaning, and by which each would agree to be judged in the light of eternity. And then from one after the other spins the little superheterodyne over all its half-circles of selectivity; from England, Spain, Italy, Germany, and France, comes with gracelessly cheerful monotony the rhythmic chirping of an American jazz.

Each nation doubtless has contributed something to the immense sum of ingenuity and knowledge which led to this machine; but then the doors are shut, and they are in family in their shirt sleeves, they have found nothing of their own; they play the same tunes. There seems something almost dishonorable in the wireless when you make this discovery, something of prying into intimacy that should be respected; but along with this feeling you may be inclined (if only the trumpet worked backward) to shout joyfully, with a distant chuckle to old and ripe-cultured Europe, whose propaganda have almost come to deceive themselves, “So this is Europe when you are by yourselves.”

When I listen to radio or watch television today I usually don’t think about where the original recording comes from at all. It doesn’t even cross my mind. But for listeners who didn’t have any experiences listening to far away broadcasts, the sensation of listening to a person geographically and culturally separate live was an incredible thing.

I wonder what our children and grandchildren will make of the technology of the early 21st century? There are plenty of writers out there like Bolitho today trying to make sense of our new inventions, I hope that we can save our initial impressions so that future generations can understand our technology and prepare for their own new earth-shattering inventions too.

Bernhardt of Russia
“Bernhardt of Russia, a Radio Fan,” c. 1922. Library of Congress.

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