Control at a Distance
I could also call this posting The Destruction of Distance – which amounts to the same thing.
This has been the effect of all our technologies involving communication – beginning with writing, which made a flowering of the arts and sciences possible, but subjected most of the people to the rule of the worst kind – the rulers of empires.
Writing made empires possible because it made control at a distance possible. Rulers could have their directives written down and taken anywhere – or even chiseled in stone. A few people could have influence (either good or bad) over many other people. Their words, in writing, acquired much more power.
And this situation lasted for almost a thousand years – with slaves providing the energy for all the work – which included making copies of their master’s writing.
The next breakthrough was the printing press – which made the modern world possible – which had advantages (which have been duly celebrated) and disadvantages (which have been mostly ignored). This lasted for about four hundred years. Note how time was shrinking – writing as the dominant communication technology lasted for 1000 years, printing for only 400 years – until the middle of the 19th Century, when all hell broke lose.
The influence of printing cannot now be appreciated. The amount of printing, in the form of newspapers and pamphlets, was phenomenal. People still wrote letters, also in volumes we cannot imagine – but they also read books and printing of kinds. Those were very literary people. Abraham Lincoln was an outstanding example – a self-taught man (but also a gloomy one).
But then came the deluge – a combination of two technologies: electricity and the photograph. Electricity produced the telegraph – which made instant, long distance communication possible. Both time and space had been destroyed – which was amazing, but even more amazing was the startling fact that no one noticed this. They just went crazy, and began to destroy their world.
This craziness was understandable. After all, their world had been destroyed. But they felt just the opposite – they had been resurrected, and had gone to heaven!
The importance of Christianity cannot be overemphasized – this was our past, and provided explanations for our present – which, let me remind you, was the middle of the 19th Century.
I must return to the technical details of the Visual Revolution, as the historian Daniel Boorstin has called it. Marshal McLuhan has correctly pointed out that this shifted our dominant mode of perception from speech (auditory, or an ear world) into an eye world. Iain McGilchrist has taken this further in his book The Master and his Emissary – which has been ignored by the very people he was writing for – our so-called intelligentsia.
Photography quickly improved until photographs could be taken easily, day and night, by anyone who could press the shutter on a camera. And these photographs could be sent over the telegraph and incorporated into news stories – to be bought by the eager public – who wanted everything delivered to them instantly – whether accurate or not – as newspaper tycoons quickly discovered. Fortunes were built by inventing the News.
No one noticed that people were being destroyed in the process – simply by eliminating their ability to understand their world. They were not interested anymore in their real world – but in a pseudo-world that was much more interesting – but controlled by others, somewhere out of sight.
The process, however had not ended – but got much worse with the development of the Movies. Everyone went to the movies – religiously. And movie stars became our new heroes. Here again, let me remind you, control was being exercised – not only at a distance, but anonymously. By unknown forces that no one could understand – and did not want to. A very serious development – but here again, one that was not noticed.
But we were not finished yet, Mass Communications came on the scene – Radio, and then Television. We cannot now appreciate the effect of the Radio – but it changed us completely, and irrevocably – for the worse. We were dependent on others (somewhere out of sight) for our information (and even more importantly, for our entertainment).
Before this, we invented our own entertainment. When my mother was a young woman, they went skating on the river, and met the young men that way. And they really knew how to skate – much better than our generation. I remember an evening of music-making at my Grandmother’s house, before it had electricity. Grandmother played the piano, my Father sang, and my Grandfather played his harmonica – and we had a good time entertaining each other.
When we got electricity and radios – this ended abruptly. And here again, no one noticed.
And then something really big happened – Television. Which again, changed us completely – and no one noticed this either – except for a few, such as McLuhan and Postman (although we did call it the Boob Tube, but also admitted (somewhat sheepishly) we could not resist it). Personally, I made the decision to not watch it – because I could see it had too much influence on me. One of the smartest moves I ever made.
This was the beginning of a long, slow process that resulted in my expulsion from that world – but only after something else happened – the Computer!
Here again, we were changed completely – but didn’t know it. I will be devoting a lot of postings to this change – but right now I will only note that it made control at a distance even more effective. The captains of industry could now exercise complete and interlocking control of their global enterprises.
Control they could not even dream of previously.