The wireless telgraph was given spectacular publicity in 1910 wehn it led to the arrest at sea of Dr. Hawley H. Crippen, a U.S. physician who had been practicing in London, muerdered his wiefe,buried her int he cellar of their home, and fled the country with is secretary aboard the linear Montrose. The secretary was dresseda s boy, and the pair traveled as Mr. Robinson and son. Captain George Kendal of the Montrose became suspicious of the Robinsons, having read int eh English papers about he Crippen case.
The Montrose was one of the few ships then equipped with Marconi's werless. binding his werless operator ot secrecy, Captain DEndall sent a message to Scotland Yard, and the Yard sent Inspector Dews on a faster liner to reae the Montrose across the Atlantic. Inspector Dews, dressed as a pilot, boarded the ontrose before it reached port and, and arrested Crippen. Eighteen months after Crippen's arrest, an act was passed in the British Parliament making it compulsory for all passenger ships to carry ireless.
The Crippen case illustrates what happens to the best-laid plans of mice and men in any organization when the instant speed of information movement begins. There is a collapse of delegated authority and a dissolution of the pyramid and management structures made familiar in the organization chart. The separation of functions, and the division of stages, spaces, and tasks are characteristic of literate and visual society and of the Western world.
These divisions tend to dissolve through the action of the instant and organic interrelations of electricity.
Former German Armaments minister Albert Speer, in a speech at the Nuremberg trials, made some bitter remarks about the effects of electric media on German life: "The telephone, the teleprinter and the wireless made it possible for orders from the highest levels to be given direct to the lowest levels, where, on account of the absolute authority behind them, they were carried out uncritically ..."
The tendency of electric media is to create a kind of organic interdependence among all the institutions of society, emphasizing de Chardin's view that the discovery of electromagnetism is to be regarded as "a prodigious biological event." If political and commercial institutions take on a biological character by means of electric communications, it is also common now for biologists like Hans Selye to think of the physical organism as a communication network: "Hormone is a specific chemical messenger-substance, made by an endocrine gland and secreted into the blood, to regulate and coordinate the functions of distant organs."
This peculiarity about the electric form, that it ends the mechanical age of individual steps and specialist functions, has a direct explanation. Whereas all previous technology (save speech, itself) had, in effect, extended some part of our bodies, electricity may be said to have outered the central nervous system itself, including the brain. Our central nervous system is a unified field quite without segments. As J. Z. Young writes in Doubt and Certainty in Science: A Biologist's Reflections on the Brain (Galaxy, Oxford University Press, New York, 1960):
It may be that a great part of the secret of the brain's power is the enormous opportunity provided for interaction between the effects of stimulating each part of the receiving fields. It is this provision of interacting-places or mixing-places that allows us to react to the world as a whole to a much greater degree than most other animals can do.
Failure to understand the organic character of electric technology is evident in our continuing concern with the dangers of mechanizing the world. Rather, we are in great danger of wiping out our entire investment in the preelectric technology of the literate and mechanical kind by means of an indiscriminate use of electrical energy. What makes a mechanism is the separation and extension of separate parts of our body as hand, arm, feet, in pen, hammer, wheel. And the mechanization of a task is done by segmentation of each part of an action in a series of uniform, repeatable, and movable parts. The exact opposite characterizes cybernation (or automation), which has been described as a way of thinking, as much as a way of doing. Instead of being concerned with separate machines, cybernation looks at the production problem as an integrated system of information handling.
It is this same provision of interacting places in the electric media that now compels us to react to the world as a whole. Above all, however, it is the speed of electric involvement that creates the integral whole of both private and public awareness. We live today in the Age of Information and of Communication because electric media instantly and constantly create a total field of interacting events in which all men participate. Now, the
world of public interaction has the same inclusive scope of integral interplay that has hitherto characterized only our private nervous systems. That is because electricity is organic in character and confirms the organic social bond by its technological use in telegraph and telephone, radio, and other forms. The simultaneity of electric communication, also characteristic of our nervous system, makes each of us present and accessible to every other person in the world. To a large degree our co-presence everywhere at once in the electric age is a fact of passive, rather than active, experience.
Actively, we are more likely to have this awareness when reading the newspaper or watching a TV show.
One way to grasp the change from the mechanical to the electric age is by noticing the difference between the layout of a literary and a telegraph press, say between the London Times and the Daily Express, or between The New York Times and the New York Daily News. It is the difference between columns representing points of view, and a mosaic of unrelated scraps in a field unified by a dateline.
Whatever else there is, there can be no point of view in a mosaic of simultaneous items. The world of impressionism, associated with painting in the late nineteenth century, found its more extreme form in the pointillisme of Seurat and the refractions of light in the world of Monet and Renoir. The stipple of points of Seurat is close to the present technique of sending pictures by telegraph, and close to the form of the TV image or mosaic made by the scanning finger. All of these anticipate later electric forms because, like the digital computer with its multiple yes-no dots and dashes, they caress the contours of every kind of being by the multiple touches of these points. Electricity offers a means of getting in touch with every facet of being at once, like the brain itself. Electricity is only incidentally visual and auditory; it is primarily tactile.
As the age of electricity began to establish itself in the later nineteenth century, the entire world of the arts began to reach again for the iconic qualities of touch and sense interplay (synes-thesia, as it was called) in poetry, as in painting. The German sculptor Adolf von Hildebrand inspired Berenson's remark that "the painter can accomplish his task only by giving tactile values to retinal impressions." Such a program involves the endowing of each plastic form with a kind of nervous system of its own.
The electric form of pervasive impression is profoundly tactile and organic, endowing each object with a kind of unified sensibility, as the cave painting had done. The unconscious task of the painter in the new electric age was to raise this fact to the level of conscious awareness. From this time on, the mere specialist in any field was doomed to the sterility and inanity that echoed an archaic form of the departing mechanical age. Contemporary awareness had to become integral and inclusive again, after centuries of dissociated sensibilities. The Bauhaus school became one of the great centers of effort tending toward an inclusive human awareness; but the same task was accepted by a race of giants that sprang up in music and poetry, architecture, and painting. They gave the arts of this century an ascendancy over those of other ages comparable to that which we have long recognized as true of modern science.
During its early growth, the telegraph was subordinate to railway and newspaper, those immediate extensions of industrial production and marketing. In fact, once the railways began to stretch across the continent, they relied very much on the telegraph for their coordination, so that the image of the station-master and the telegraph operator were easily superimposed in the American mind.
It was in 1844 that Samuel Morse opened a telegraph line from Washington to Baltimore with $30,000 obtained from Congress.
Private enterprise, as usual, waited for bureaucracy to clarify the image and goals of the new operation. Once it proved profitable, the fury of private promotion and initiative became impressive, leading to some savage episodes. No new
technology, not even the railroad, manifested a more rapid growth than the telegraph. By 1858 the first cable had been laid across the Atlantic, and by 1861 telegraph wires had reached across America.
That each new method of transporting commodity or information should have to come into existence in a bitter competitive battle against previously existing devices is not surprising. Each innovation is not only commercially disrupting, but socially and psychologically corroding, as well.
It is instructive to follow the embryonic stages of any new growth, for during this period of development it is much misunderstood, whether it be printing or the motorcar or TV. Just because people are at first oblivious of its nature, the new form deals some revealing blows to the zombie-eyed spectators. The original telegraph line between Baltimore and Washington promoted chess games between experts in the two cities. Other lines were used for lotteries and play in general, just as early radio existed in isolation from any commercial commitments and was, in fact, fostered by the amateur "hams" for years before it was seized by big interests.
A few months ago John Crosby wrote to the New York Herald Tribune from Paris in a way that well illustrates why the "content"
obsession of the man of print culture makes it difficult for him to notice any facts about the form of a new medium:
Telstar, as you know, is that complicated ball that whirls through space, transmitting television broadcasts, telephone messages, and everything except common sense. When it was first cast aloft, trumpets sounded. Continents would share each other's intellectual pleasures. Americans would enjoy Brigitte Bardot. Europeans would partake of the heady intellectual stimulation of "Ben Casey." . . . The fundamental flaw in this communications miracle is the same one that has bugged every communications miracle since they started carving hieroglyphics on stone tablets. What do you say on it?
went into operation in August when almost nothing of importance was happening anywhere in Europe. All the networks were ordered to say something, anything, on this miracle instrument. "It was a new toy and they just had to use it," the men here say. CBS combed Europe for hot news and came up with a sausage-eating contest, which was duly sent back via the miracle ball, although that particular news event could have gone by camelback without losing any of its essence.
Any innovation threatens the equilibrium of existing organization. In big industry new ideas are invited to rear their heads so that they can be clobbered at once. The idea department of a big firm is a sort of lab for isolating dangerous viruses. When one is found, it is assigned to a group for neutralizing and immunizing treatment. It is comical, therefore, when anybody applies to a big corporation with a new idea that would result in a great "increase of production and sales." Such an increase would be a disaster for the existing management. They would have to make way for new management.
Therefore, no new idea ever starts from within a big operation. It must assail the organization from outside, through some small but competing organization. In the same way, the outering or extension of our bodies and senses in a "new invention" compels the whole of our bodies and senses to shift into new positions in order to maintain equilibrium. A new "closure" is effected in all our organs and senses, both private and public, by any new invention. Sight and sound assume new postures, as do all the other faculties. With the telegraph, the entire method, both of gathering and of presenting news, was revolutionized. Naturally, the effects on language and on literary style and subject matter were spectacular.
In the same year, 1844, then, that men were playing chess and lotteries on the first American telegraph, Soren Kierkegaard published The Concept of Dread. The Age of Anxiety had begun. For with
the telegraph, man had initiated that outering or extension of his central nervous system that is now approaching an extension of consciousness with satellite broadcasting. To put one's nerves outside, and one's physical organs inside the nervous system, or the brain, is to initiate a situation-if not a concept-of dread.
Having glanced at the major trauma of the telegraph on conscious life, noting that it ushers in the Age of Anxiety and of Pervasive Dread, we can turn to some specific instances of this uneasiness and growing jitters. Whenever any new medium or human extension occurs, it creates a new myth for itself, usually associated with a major figure: Aretino, the Scourge of Princes and the Puppet of Printing; Napoleon and the trauma of industrial change; Chaplin, the public conscience of the movie; Hitler, the tribal totem of radio; and Florence Nightingale, the first singer of human woe by telegraph wire.
Florence Nightingale (1820-1910), wealthy and refined member of the powerful new English group engendered by industrial power, began to pick up human-distress signals, as a young lady. They were quite undecipherable at first. They upset her entire way of life, and couldn't be adjusted to her image of parents or friends or suitors. It was sheer genius that enabled her to translate the new diffused anxiety and dread of life into the idea of deep human involvement and hospital reform. She began to think, as well as to live, her time, and she discovered the new formula for the electronic age: Medicare.
Care of the body became balm for the nerves in the age that had extended its nervous system outside itself for the first time in human history. To put the Florence Nightingale story in new media terms is quite simple. She arrived on a distant scene where controls from the London center were of the common pre-electric hierarchical pattern.
Minute division and delegation of functions and separation of powers, normal in military and industrial organization then and long afterward, created an imbecile system of waste and inefficiency which for the first time got reported daily by
telegraph. The legacy of literacy and visual fragmentation came home to roost every day on the telegraph wire:
In England fury succeeded fury. A great storm of rage, humiliation, and despair had been gathering through the terrible winter of 1854-1855. For the first time in history, through reading the dispatches of Russell, the public had realized "with what majesty the British soldier fights." And these heroes were dead. The men who had stormed the heights of Alma, charged with the Light Brigade at Balaclava ... had perished of hunger and neglect. Even horses which had taken part in the Charge of the Light Brigade had starved to death. (Lonely Crusader,Cecil wbodham-Smith, McGraw-Hill)
The horrors that William Howard Russell relayed by wire to The Times were normal in British military life. He was the first war correspondent, because the telegraph gave that immediate and inclusive dimension of "human interest" to news that does not belong to a "point of view." It is merely a comment on our absentmindedness and general indifference that after more than a century of telegraph news reporting, nobody has seen that "human interest" is the electronic or depth dimension of immediate involvement in news. With telegraph, there ended that separation of interests and division of faculties that are certainly not without their magnificent monuments of toil and ingenuity. But with telegraph, came the integral insistence and wholeness of Dickens, and of Florence Nightingale, and of Harriet Beecher Stowe. The electric gives powerful voices to the weak and suffering, and sweeps aside the bureaucratic specialisms and job descriptions of the mind tied to a manual of instructions. The "human interest" dimension is simply that of immediacy of participation in the experience of others that occurs with instant information. People become instant, too, in their response of pity or of fury when they must share the
common extension of the central nervous system with the whole of mankind. Under these conditions, "conspicuous waste" or
"conspicuous consumption" become lost causes, and even the hardiest of the rich dwindle into modest ways of timid service to mankind.
At this point, some may still inquire why the telegraph should create
"human interest," and why the earlier press did not. The section on The Press may help these readers. But there may also be a lurking obstacle to perception. The instant aJl-at-onceness and total involvement of the telegraphic form still repels some literary sophisticates. For them, visual continuity and fixed "point of view"
render the immediate participation of the instant media as distasteful and unwelcome as popular sports. These people are as much media victims, unwittingly mutilated by their studies and toil, as children in a Victorian blacking factory. For many people, then, who have had their sensibilities irremediably skewed and locked into the fixed postures of mechanical writing and printing, the iconic forms of the electric age are as opaque, or even as invisible, as hormones to the unaided eye. It is the artist's job to try to dislocate older media into postures that permit attention to the new. To this end, the artist must ever play and experiment with new means of arranging experience, even though the majority of his audience may prefer to remain fixed in their old perceptual attitudes. The most that can be done by the prose commentator is to capture the media in as many characteristic and revealing postures as he can manage to discover. Let us examine a series of these postures of the telegraph, as this new medium encounters other media like the book and the newspaper.
By 1848 the telegraph, then only four years old, compelled several major American newspapers to form a collective organization for newsgathering. This effort became the basis of the Associated Press, which, in turn, sold news service to subscribers. In one sense, the real meaning of this form of the
electric, instant coverage was concealed by the mechanical overlay of the visual and industrial patterns of print and printing. The specifically electric effect may seem to appear in this instance as a centralizing and compressional force. By many analysts, the electric revolution has been regarded as a continuation of the process of the mechanization of mankind. Closer inspection reveals quite a different character. For example, the regional press, that had had to rely on postal service and political control through the post office, quickly escaped from this center-margin type of monopoly by means of the new telegraph services. Even in England, where short distances and concentrated population made the railway a powerful agent of centralism, the monopoly of London was dissolved by the invention of the telegraph, which now encouraged provincial competition. The telegraph freed the marginal provincial press from dependence on the big metropolitan press. In the whole field of the electric revolution, this pattern of decentralization appears in multiple guises. It is Sir Lewis Namier's view that telephone and airplane are die biggest single cause of trouble in the world today. Professional diplomats with delegated powers have been supplanted by prime ministers, presidents, and foreign secretaries, who think they could conduct all important negotiations personally. This is also the problem encountered in big business, where it has been found impossible to exercise delegated authority when using the telephone.
The very nature of the telephone, as all electric media, is to compress and unify that which had previously been divided and specialized. Only the "authority of knowledge" works by telephone because of the speed that creates a total and inclusive field of relations. Speed requires that the decisions made be inclusive, not fragmentary or partial, so that literate people typically resist the telephone. But radio and TV, we shall see, have the same power of imposing an inclusive order, as of an oral organization. Quite in contrast is the center-margin form of visual and written structures of authority.
Many analysts have been misled by electric media because of the seeming ability of these media to extend man's spatial powers of organization. Electric media, however, abolish the spatial dimension, rather than enlarge it. By electricity, we everywhere resume person-to-person relations as if on the smallest village scale. It is a relation in depth, and without delegation of functions or powers. The organic everywhere supplants the mechanical. Dialogue supersedes the lecture. The greatest dignitaries hobnob with youth. When a group of Oxford undergraduates heard that Rudyard Kipling received ten shillings for every word he wrote, they sent him ten shillings by telegram during their meeting: "Please send us one of your very best words." Back came the word a few minutes later:
The hybrids of electricity and the older mechanics have been numerous. Some of them, such as the phonograph and the movie, are discussed elsewhere in this volume. Today the wedding of mechanical and electric technology draws to a close, with TV
replacing the movie and Telstar threatening the wheel. A century ago the effect of the telegraph was to send the presses racing faster, just as the application of the electric spark was to make possible the internal-combustion engine with its instant precision. Pushed further, however, the electric principle everywhere dissolves the mechanical technique of visual separation and analysis of functions. Electronic tapes with exactly synchronized information replace the old lineal sequence of the assembly line.
Acceleration is a formula for dissolution and breakdown in any organization. Since the entire mechanical technology of the Western world has been wedded to electricity, it has pushed toward higher speeds. All the mechanical aspects of our world seem to probe toward self-liquidation. The United States had built up a large degree of central political controls through the interplay of the railway, the post office, and the newspaper. In 1848 the Postmaster General wrote, in his report, that
newspapers have "always been esteemed of so much importance to the public, as the best means of disseminating intelligence among the people, that the lowest rate has always been afforded for the purpose of encouraging their circulation." The telegraph quickly weakened this center-margin pattern and, more important, by intensifying the volume of news, it greatly weakened the role of editorial opinions. News has steadily overtaken views as a shaper of public attitudes, though few examples of this change are quite so striking as the sudden growth of the Florence Nightingale image in the British world. And yet nothing has been more misunderstood than the power of the telegraph in this matter. Perhaps the most decisive feature is this. The natural dynamic of the book and, also, newspaper is to create a unified national outlook on a centralized pattern. All literate people, therefore, experience a desire for an extension of the most enlightened opinions in a uniform horizontal and homogeneous pattern to the "most backward areas," and to the least literate minds. The telegraph ended that hope. It decentralized the newspaper world so thoroughly that uniform national views were quite impossible, even before the Civil War. Perhaps an even more important consequence of the telegraph was that in America the literary talent was drawn into journalism, rather than into the book medium. Poe and Twain and Hemingway are examples of writers who could find neither training nor outlet save through the newspaper. In Europe, on the other hand, the numerous small national groups presented a discontinuous mosaic that the telegraph merely intensified. The result was that the telegraph in Europe strengthened the position of the book, and forced even the press to assume a literary character.
Not least of the developments since the telegraph has been the weather forecast, perhaps the most popularly participative of all the human interest items in the daily press. In the early days of telegraph, rain created problems in the grounding of wires. These problems drew attention to weather dynamics. One report in Canada in 1883 stated: "It was early discovered that when the wind at Montreal was from the East or North-East, rain storms traveled from the West, and the stronger the land current, the faster came the rain from the opposite direction." It is clear that telegraph, by providing a wide sweep of instant information, could reveal meteorological patterns of force quite beyond observation by pre-electric man.