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Odd Wisconsin Archive

Noise R Us

Smart phones seem to be trivializing social life. The constant stream of Twitter tweets, Facebook status updates, and daily blogs calls to mind Henry David Thoreau's famous comment on the new technology of his own day:

"We are in great haste to construct a magnetic telegraph from Maine to Texas; but Maine and Texas, it may be, have nothing important to communicate... As if the main object were to talk fast and not to talk sensibly." (Walden, ch. 1). He could have been describing America today.

The miraculous telegraph was introduced in Wisconsin on Jan. 15, 1848, when a message reached Milwaukee from Chicago. The Milwaukee press soon reported that to be in constant contact with Washington and New York was "more like magic than reality."

A generation later, the telephone was greeted with similar enthusiasm. In 1877 Richard Valentine of Janesville made the first phone call in Wisconsin, and later that year the Milwaukee City Council leased three of the devices to connect the mayor's office with the police and fire departments. In Madison, lines were strung over buildings and through treetops to connect the Capitol with the UW campus, so legislators at one end of State St. could try speaking with professors at the other. The whole state was properly impressed by the experiment and a wave of enthusiasm for telephones swept across Wisconsin.

The telegraph and telephone were both seen initially as ways to communicate important messages. They soon descended, however, to the same kind of triviality we see today. "We are eager to tunnel under the Atlantic and bring the Old World some weeks nearer to the New;" Thoreau continued, "but perchance the first news that will leak through into the broad, flapping American ear will be that the Princess Adelaide has the whooping cough."

Thoreau would have been dismayed (but not surprised) at the superficial noise that fills our cell phones and computers. "The mind can be profaned by the habit of attending to trivial things," he wrote elsewhere, "so that all our thoughts shall be tinged with triviality." The late Neil Postman argued in his book Amusing Ourselves to Death that television had done exactly that to American society. What would they have thought of the millions of transient tweets and shallow text messages that will bounce off satellites in the next 24 hours?

More importantly, what is the role of cultural organizations like our own in a world where data is ubiquitous and information is cheap, but accurate knowledge and critical thinking are rare?

:: Posted in Curiosities on May 12, 2009

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