Thursday, March 8, 2018

When We Were All Ears

There won’t be many 73rd, 74th or 75th birthdays celebrated this year. The birth rate was very low during 1943,1944 and 1945. Unless, of course, your father had flat feet, punctured eardrum or (as in Donald Trump’s case) bone spurs in his heel. (That is the last I’ll say on this subject.) Those of us in our late 70s, 80s or 90s are the privileged ones. We not only were eye-witnesses to the war-time era of good-feeling, that we were in it together from a distance (war bonds, paper-drives) but many of us remember the bittersweet Depression and a few, like Peggy, felt the plunge of the stock market in 1929, four days after her mother's death left her an orphan.

I say, privileged, because there is another less noted but more pervasive presence which dominated our lives, sublimally. We were raised by radio. Every house had one or two, portable or floor console, which became the centerpiece for family gatherings. We would stare into the speaker as if it were a T.V. screen. Some of us found an entire canvas in that usually ornate box.

Interesting how the two dominating figures of the century arrived together.  Both understood the power of the mike and may not have been leaders if television prevailed rather than radio.

Radio was tribal. It struck a chord like a distant drum. It created a kinship of like minds. Hitler had his tent. He could have spoken gibberish and often did. Nobody used the new medium to greater advantage outside of Europe than Franklin Roosevelt. He could have recited the Bronx telephone directory, but didn't. It was his intonation that was so God-like. 

His fireside chats were major events which numbered only thirty in his 4,422 days in office yet they seemed to resonate far beyond their actual delivery. The first was delivered 9 days before I entered this world and somehow reached me in that embryonic sea. FDR spoke as if directly to each ear in the room. Some were appeals for support since most newspapers were operated by staunch Republicans. Others were assurances we would get through the ordeal. His audience was as much as 61.5 million people during the war years.

Movies were our visual source and radio exercised our auditory sense. We relied on what we heard. The voice from the box developed our muscle of imagination. We believed that the mouth of ventriloquist, Edgar Bergen, didn’t move when he became Charlie McCarthy. We could even picture a beauty pageant if they broadcast one. I could listen to Dodger games and see the entire ballpark.

When T.V. entered our lives a faculty in our sensory apparatus was replaced. Nixon was twice elected Vice President by radio and defeated by Kennedy because now we could see him squirming, sweating and his five o'clock shadow. It took him another eight years to learn how to fake authenticity for the camera.

According to Marshall McLuhan radio had the effect of fostering communal societies such as Communism and Fascism. Before radio we were a visual culture relying on print technology and the result was Individualism. Even in the U.S. the shared experience of radio brought us together in ways we haven't seen since. Some of us remember the Joe Louis - Max Schmeling heavyweight fights in the 1930's. The rematch drew the largest radio audience in history of 70 million.

The more television became technologically perfected the less participation was demanded of us. When black and white screens yielded to color I was disabused of my belief that grass was gray….only kidding. But higher definition has made the small screen almost undifferentiated from movies.

The computer and, by extension, mobile devices have provided a visual immediacy which replaces a need for memory. With speed-dialing our need to remember phone numbers or birthdays has taken a hit. Rote memorization of basic arithmetic is no longer essential. It’s all there at our fingertips. Smart phones are a haptic (touch) experience, tactile and less linear sequential. The way of reading today is a total field approach using ideograms and emoji. We read as much but we are no longer bookish. Even literary fiction is fractured, less plot-driven and often about an observation of the observer.

McLuhan predicted a global village fifty years ago though he never quite imagined the Internet. He made the case that the particular media itself is the message, more so than the content it carries. For the most part we are unaware of what’s happening to us. Technology can eat us alive or we can worship it… or any stop in between. It operates unremarked upon but profoundly, in plain sight. Those of us octogenarians are stuck in a nearly dead era which must feel like prehistory to millennials. Be patient with us. We could hear what you can only see.

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