The great human transition of the twentieth century

Part 2

The great human transition is not only happening through technology alone. There has been, and still is, a sociological and cultural transition as well. Culture can be said to be a reflection of art and, since technology influences culture, it must also influence art. I suppose that there are instances where technology is art—well, I won’t look for that one here. There are a variety of of art forms that humans use. I would like to look at one, along with it’s associated technologies, that I am most familiar with.

During the first half of the twentieth century, popular music was played by orchestras or small groups of musicians playing acoustic instruments. Someone wrote a song, musicians or an orchestra played it, and someone sang the words somewhere in the middle. There were a few personalities, but, in general, for popular music, it was the music that was important. Recording was in it’s infancy ready to start making stars. Oh, there were stars before recordings came along, but, they were somewhat local. Records could be sold long distances from where the performance took place, thereby reaching a much larger audience and the recording could be played over and over, allowing the tune to catch on and become even more popular.

A curious factor came into play at this time. The companies producing the recordings decided what should be recorded and what would be sold. Yes, this played a role somewhat before recordings, but, it was the large audience that records reached that made this important. For example, the 1920s is often known as the ‘jazz age.’ While there were both black people and white people playing jazz, the recording studios decided that the white bands should play ‘dance’ music and leave the jazz to the black bands. Separate labels, called ‘race’ labels were created for the black bands. Record companies and recording studios are still influencing what is popular today.

Now, don’t think that the musicians were considered important. Often the performer’s names were changed and usually names were omitted, that is, until a name became popular, like Louis Armstrong. And, no musicians got any residuals or royalties from the sale of the records they performed on. The performance was paid for and the recording studio owned it and could sell it as often as it liked. That did not change until the 1940s.

Silent movies were also making popular stars in the same way that records were. It was the time of vaudeville. Performers travelled various vaudeville circuits and many people did become stars who then got the chance to perform on records or in movies, particularly when sound movies or ‘talkies’ came along. Some silent movie actors had poor voices for talkies and were dropped—a star one day and unemployed the next. The movie musical Singin’ In the Rain tells this story.

In the early days, recordings were made by musicians in a room with a large funnel. To balance the sound, softer instruments were put in front of louder ones, with the loudest, at the back of the room. The narrow end of the funnel went through the wall to a hose or pipe that was connected to a diaphragm with a needle on it. The needle was placed on a wax disk (early records were made of cylinders). Sound coming through the hose from the funnel would cause the diaphragm to vibrate, thus making the needle vibrate on the wax disk. To play the recording back, the process worked in reverse. By electroplating the disk, masters could be made to stamp record disks. Record play back was done from a needle vibrating in the grooves on the disk making the diaphragm produce the sound. A pipe leading to a horn amplified the sound. Volume control was generally done by opening and closing the doors in front of the mouth of the horn. Acoustical recording processes were limited in terms of what could be picked-up and recorded.

In 1925, a new recording technology change everything. The electrical recording process, I think first used by RCA Victor, allowed much clearer recordings and playback. Suddenly, performers played into microphones. The electrical recording process allow a broader range of instruments and voices to be recorded. An electrical recording process was adapted for movies and performance reproductions seemed almost live.

Radio came along and soon there were radio stars, recording stars and movie stars. Television, invented in the 1920s, but, achieving mass appeal in the late 1940s, made stars faster and easier. We can see the results every day in our lives.

Something important happened after the second world war. Orchestras had been hurt by band members going off to war. During the late 1940s and 50s, singers and other personalities became the focus of entertainment. Around the year I was born, a new kind of music was beginning to drive a social shift. The new music was louder than most larger orchestras, thanks to electric instruments and large amplifiers. Some felt the music was rebellious. The musicians wrote their own music and it began to have social content. Speaking to society. People danced away from each other, instead of together and they danced in more jarring motions.

As the 1960s rolled in, the listeners of the new rock and roll, or rock, music began to distance themselves from their parents. This is an important issue, as I will discuss later. To make the times even more turbulent, the U.S. was becoming involved in a very unpopular war in Vietnam. Unrest grew as did the now very vocal younger members of society. While the parents of these folks had banded together through two wars and a depression, as a cohesive group, the new generation began to think of their own self, thus ushering in the ‘me’ generation. Suddenly, everything their parents represented was establishment and the old generation. Now, there was a generation gap and the idea of thinking of individual rights, not necessarily the rights of everybody else. One could almost do what they wanted. Tune in and drop out (of society), and whatever you do, don’t be square (as like your parents).

I’ve warned you about the unexpected and for these social drop-outs, well, they woke up one day to find that they had dropped-in and become, in some ways similar to their parents, or at least, more of what they had rebelled against. But, their rebellion had changed the world. The ‘me’ attitude had forever change society. People thought of civil rights, individual rights and it was now OK to be rude, let’s say to your parents, and be rebellious. Social morals had eroded. Youth had their own music and it drove them in ever newer directions.

The world was shrinking even faster, as the century wore on, and one could watch it all happen instantaneously. Technology could take you anywhere and bring the world’s problems right into your home 24 hours a day. Suddenly, sounds and images could be altered into anything, thanks to the computer. It was becoming more and more difficult to tell what was real. Things once considered abnormal were fast becoming normal or acceptable in society thanks to the abilities of new media to deliver any sort of information to anyone who wants it.

The new moral values spread across societies even faster than technology was changing. A new power had emerged to be harnessed by the corporations. Corporations discovered the social swaying power of the new technologies, beginning with radio and television and later with the Internet, they joined other technologies, such as newspapers and magazines to form the media. Suddenly, fads could spread through society overnight changing culture again and again.

There are a few curious notes to make here. What I have described is the loss of individuals in society to really think with wisdom about their situation. Consider the recording. Suddenly, a musical message could be transfered to a massive number of people, however, the audience was still paying the bill. The same could be said for movies, however, a couple of new aspects were introduced. I’ll get to them in a moment, first, let’s jump to radio for a moment. Here was method of transferring a message and the audience did not have to pay. In fact, if they wanted to listen, they were a captive audience. The question of how to pay for the performances is a turning point in corporate control of culture.

Sponsorship was the answer. Allow corporations to broadcast their message, usually to sell something, and have them foot the bill for the performance. Corporations had a captive audience and the audience bought in. It had worked in the printed media of newspapers and magazines, and it worked in radio. It infiltrated, to some extent, in to movies, but, later in a much more insidious way called product placement. Products were used in a movie set to people using the product. This practice carries on today.

The television was to catapult this corporate advantage over society to heights nobody could have imagined and there is a very important reason why. In all the other forms of performance reproductions, the audience could do something else—think. Radio, reaching primarily the ears for hearing, allowed the rest of the body to do something else. In the case of the mind, it was important to imagine, particularly, with dramatic stories. With only sounds to tell a story, the mind was left to fill in the rest, to paint a mental picture of what was happening. The mind was an active participant.

Here is the difference. With TV, the audience is passive. The body and mind are stationary as the story is told. When a commercial advertisement is inserted, the mind is still passive and the message is absorbed without much thought. I usually switch channels to see what else is on, thereby, engaging my mind for a few moments in something else.

For many people, the TV is the center of life in the home. People will eat meals watching TV, filling their stomach with one thing, perhaps food they bought after watching a commercial, and filling their minds with a message. In my home growing up, we ate dinner watching Walter Cronkite, the CBS new anchor, deliver the Veitnam War news to our dinner table. I can remember eating my breakfast and watching rockets take-off into space.

Those were the simple days. Today, we have cable TV and the Internet and other technologies, like the cell phone, to add into the mix. Corporations have, thanks to the power given them in the earlier years, grown more powerful than we could ever have imagined. They control fads and trends through their ever more subtle tactics and messages. With the Internet, we have a message sender, a person, group or corporation, and we have a receiver or audience. Both are hidden behind the veil of a computer screen. With the capabilities of the computer and the massive distributions means of the Internet, a message can be made to look like anything.

Be careful when you research a product that you might like to buy. One can find reviews and forums to learn the pros and cons of almost anything. But, who is providing the pros and who the cons comments? Could a corporation enter a friendly forum discussion and act as a consumer praising a product? You bet, it happens all the time. Can a single person look like a corporation? Sure, anyone can make a website and look like whatever they please. Of course. How many times have we heard warnings to kids in chat rooms to be careful who they talk to and what they say—and never arrange to meet someone alone.

Herein lies a massive change in our culture—the transference of wisdom. Before the twentieth century, people talked and interacted together, one on one. Usually, wisdom was garnered from the elders of the family, parents and grand parents, as well as other important people in our lives. Today, children watch TV or rely on the Internet to learn wisdom. They trust the messages without question. Movies and TV shows, now in such abundance and so easily accessible, do not always depict life in a realistic fashion. Another entity that is trusted is the education system. Yes, if we are not careful, a major aspect of a child’s parenting and life will end up being strangers. Or, is it too late?

Leaving wisdom aside for a moment, we must note also, that the amount of information and the speed of delivery to us, has increased beyond our ability to absorb and turn information and data into knowledge and understanding, to think and question and think critically.

Life has become increasingly more complex and that turns out to be expensive. A new culture of consumerism has risen and getting and spending money to keep up has come to drive society in new directions.

In every century up to the twentieth century, people lived in much the same way as their parents. Change was slow. By the end of the twentieth century, people were changing the way they were living nearly every decade. Can we keep up this pace? Are we drowning in a sea of information, unable to question and adjust to changes in our lives?