I was reading the latest issue of The Believer—the music issue!—today, and I found this tidbit interesting. It's from Hua Hsu's examination of the telephone in pop music history, and it made me cackle:
Early newspaper reports of Alexander Graham Bell's new invention, the telephone, exhibited a laughable narrowness of vision. Short of changing business or politics, the greatest effect, some teased, would be in the arena of courtship. "A fellow can now court his girl in China as well as in East Boston," an 1870s editorial in the Boston Times forsaw, before warning of "the awful and irresponsible power" such a device would give nagging mothers.
The technology changes, but the complaints remain the same: 1) Someone, somewhere is using this technology to gain pleasures you yourself are not experiencing and that's alarming and 2) Women are frightening creatures whose awe-inspiring powers to destroy are only being restrained by the lack of this new technology in their lives.
Nona Willis Aronowitz posted a video from MTV News in 1995 about the internet. The broadcasters were not panicked about the internet. On the contrary, they seemed to think it was a really cool invention that had a lot of potential. But they reported on the fact that a lot of people at the time were panicked by the internet, because, you know, orgasms.
(There's a little bit of Billy Corgan bashing Michael Jackson, too. Guess who won history?)
People's continual panic over technological innovation—the way we easily convince ourselves that a new medium or device will somehow be the ruin of us all—is one of those topics I find fascinating without ever really resolving it in my mind. I'm particularly amused at the knee-jerk assumption that older forms are automatically deeper and more interesting. I was compelled to think about that some today after reading the tedious, joy-killing comments at what I thought was a fun post at XX Factor about MTV's early years and what it meant to people like me. Using a little bit of colorful language, I said that MTV raised me, by which of course I meant that I watched a lot of it growing up and it had a big impact on my way of thinking. I made a substantive argument that this was a good thing, but of course the puzzling "OMG TV IS THE DEVIL" folks had to show up in comments.
It is sad….really sad. To think that so many young people (and now old people) park their behinds in front of a television and let mindless television programing become the "inspiration" and the open window into a view of the world and of their lives. REALLY…..I mean REALLY AMANDA? You were "raised" by MTV? That in and of itself is truely a sad statement about not just one generation but multi generations. It is sad, at least to me, that an entire generations view of what is important from their youth was coming home and parking in front of a television to watch a show about a bunch of musicians in made up videos about made up things. But that is also true of the generation that came home and parked in front of a television to watch Andy Griffith or Lassie, or Gulliagans Island. Again a generation defined not by the things they did but what they watched….sad but true.
I told him I rejected his "get off my lawn" argument, particularly the notion that I'm a stupid or sad person because I like music videos. But it did make me think: would such a person crap his pants if I wrote about an older medium changing my life for the better? What if I posted this song by the Velvet Underground and said I related to it? I'm guessing I'd be praised, because radio is an older medium and therefore assumed to be wholesome and intelligence-improving.
In fact, I got something of an answer to my question, as a number of people showed up in comments and shamed anyone who watched MTV for not being more into radio. Radio's superiority was assumed to be self-evident, even though I brought forth evidence in the post and people backed it up in comments that a lot of what was on MTV was simply not available on the radio in much of the country. In fact, I would say that's the point of the post. By simply having more diverse and newer content, MTV was automatically superior, in my opinion. But this notion that technological evolution is somehow immoral (I got both right wing puritans shaming me for the sexual immorality of watching MTV and liberal puritans shaming me for the supposed corporatist immorality of watching MTV) just is asserted as if it's an immutable truth of humanity and not just some arbitrary bullshit.
I remain puzzled as to why people so easily take it as a given that a communication/media technology's newness makes it more immoral and vapid than older forms, which were also considered immoral and vapid when they came out. I'm sure it has something to do with fear of mortality. Any way you slice it , there's an irony there, because I would argue that the knee-jerk rejection of a technology simply because it's new is what is vapid and quite often immoral, particularly when it comes to the people who begrudge young people whose lives are very often saved by fascinating new technologies that show them a world behind the limited ones that are smothering them.