Thursday, January 28, 2016

A Radio Prophecy with Fadiman and Barzun

The following is transcribed from a portion of a radio episode entitled, “What Inventions Have Benefited Mankind the Most?” broadcast in 1954 as an installment of the NBC Radio program "Conversation."

Host Clifton Fadiman is joined by radio personality Fred Allen, Columbia University professor and author Jacques Barzun, and inventor Alfred M. Goldsmith.

Readers/listeners will immediately recognize the now ubiquitous and baleful devices the speakers speculatively describe. 

(You can hear the whole episode HERE)

Clifton Fadiman: I want to get back to what we might expect in the realm of the future.

Dr. Alfred M. Goldsmith: Well, if you want to go to the communications field, of course you can go direct to the dream of person-to-person communicaton anywhere. Tesla expressed that back in the 1880s. He said a time would come when everybody would carry, presumably in his vest pocket, a little communication set of some sort which responded only to his personal signal much the way a telephone does.

Fadiman: Is that theoretically possible?

Goldsmith: (Emphatic) Oh yes. And he said that when that time came, if you wanted to talk to your friend you would call him on this device, and from the depths of a mine or the center of an ocean or the midst of a desert or the streets of a crowded city you would hear his voice answering. And he ended very dramatically: ‘And if you didn’t hear him answer you would know he was dead.’

Jacques Barzun: Oh no, no, that doesn’t follow. He may not want to.

Goldsmith: Well, he assumed that this thing would ring so violently that he would answer finally—

Barzun: Well then that’s not an improvement. That’s appalling!

Fadiman: You know Dr. Goldsmith, this is a very dismal picture that you draw. That means that I, in this future paradise of yours, am at the mercy of about three-and-a-half billion people who may want to phone me.

Barzun: That’s right. Absolutely. I’m busy!

Goldsmith: Not only can they call you and demand an answer. But still worse in this quasi paradise, they could even turn on their television attachment and see you at any hour of day and night.

Allen: Whatever you were doing? I think we’d better not go into that.

Fadiman: Better reform! Or declare this moratorium that Fred suggested.

Allen: That’s what I say. That’s the thing to do.

Goldsmith: I was waiting for Mr. Allen to tell us what he thinks about this idea of universal portable television/audio communication.

Allen: I think we’re worse off because today you can escape from the telephone. You can get out of the house. But if you’ve got the bell tied on you or built in you or growing in you or something—

Goldsmith: In your pocket.

Allen: In your pocket.

Fadiman: I’ve often been tormented by the vision of a future, Dr. Goldsmith, in which we have invented, uh, we have really perfected mass communication to the degree that it will be possible to bind together in one great instananeous network all the human beings of the earth, and that by a system of translation machine such as we have up at the United Nations, they’ll all be able to understand anything that’s being said. And they’re all tuned in at one moment to listen to a central message — and here are billions of people all listening — and the nightmare is very simple: What are they going to hear? Who’s going to say something worth

Allen: This sounds like George Orwell’s 1984, only on a worse scale!

Barzun: Yes, well here maybe I can introduce a hopeful note to take care of Mr. Fadiman’s trouble. As one who’s been teaching too many years, I can tell you that no matter what you announce to whatever group of people, there will be more than half of them not listening. 

Allen: You mean they’ll lower their earlids.

Barzun: Yes, exactly.

Fadiman: That’s consoling.

Barzun: And the other half won’t probably won’t get it quite straight. So that the pleasant diversity, which I think is what you’re aiming at, will continue.

Fadiman: Well, I’m all for the multiplication of mass impressions. Now, don’t misunderstand me. I just think that at the same time we ought to be trying to work out better and better things to say, as well as better and better ways of saying them.