If there be e-volution, there surely is de-volution, a degradation of the species.
– H.S. Carpenter, 1882
They tell us that
We lost our tails
From little snails
I say it’s all
Just wind in sails
– Devo, 1977
The computer is a handy device. It’s terrific for looking up who played Wally Cleaver on Leave It to Beaver. But the computer is essentially meaningless to wisdom, learning, and sense.
My laptop may be a great technological improvement on my old IBM Selectric. (Wally was played Tony Dow – I just Googled it.) But there is no historical indication that technological improvements in the way we inscribe our ideas lead to improvement in the wisdom, learning, and sense of the ideas themselves.
The opposite case can be made. When words had to be carved in stone, we got the Ten Commandments.
When we needed to make our own ink and chase a goose around the yard to obtain a quill, we got William Shakespeare.
When the fountain pen was invented, we got Henry James.
When the typewriter came along, we got Jack Kerouac.
And with the advent of the smartphone keypad we get… Donald Trump on Twitter.
It’s not just the written word that exhibits “degradation of the species.” The quality of what’s communicated seems to decline steadily with every advance in the ease of communicating. And the decline started right from the get-go.
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Samuel Morse invented the telegraph in 1844. The first words he sent down the wire had gravitas, were thought-provoking, and possessed a literary pedigree (King James Bible, Numbers 23:23)…
“What hath God wrought.”
But by 1876, when Alexander Graham Bell invented the telephone, messaging had already turned prosaic. The first words spoken into a phone were…
“Mr. Watson – come here – I want to see you.”
And Thomas Watson was all the way over yonder… in the next room. He could probably hear Bell just fine through the doorway – in case you thought your kid texting you in the kitchen from the breakfast nook was something new.
(Poor Tom, never remembered as anything but Alex’s butt boy, when in fact he took his phone company profits and founded one of the largest shipyards in America.)
In 1901, Guglielmo Marconi made the first long-distance radio transmission. What did he have to say?
That’s it. Or, to put it literally (since Macroni was using the Morse Code developed by Samuel Morse and Alfred Vail):
And Marconi was a real chatterbox compared to Philo T. Farnsworth (really, that was his name), who invented television in 1927. We can’t analyze the content of the first TV broadcast because it didn’t have any. What showed up on Farnsworth’s cathode ray tube was:
A straight line. Which is, I suppose, some kind of “intellectual level,” so to speak. But Farnsworth soon brought the intellectual level of television further down to where it has remained ever since. The second thing he broadcast was:
He put a dollar sign in front of his primitive camera because – according to what I read on the Internet – an investor asked, “When are we going to see some dollars in this thing, Farnsworth?”
Which brings us to that Internet, which tells me – with no apparent embarrassment – that the first word to ever appear on itself was:
In 1969 a UCLA student named Charley Kline tried to transmit the command “login” to a Stanford Research Institute computer on ARPANET. This caused the system to crash, and all that came through was “lo.” About an hour later (if you think the people in Tech Support are bad now, imagine how bad they were when they didn’t exist) the “gin” arrived.
And I – shaken but not stirred – am still waiting for the olive and the vermouth.