I was reading a book the other evening (specifically 1861: The Civil War Awakening by Adam Goodheart) and I stumbled across a few passages that struck me as rather poignant. These passages were essentially criticisms of technological advances such as the telegraph and morse code. Also, op-ed articles in newspapers. Thus, I came to realize technological advancements have always been viewed with skepticism and fear. Humans have always feared easy access to information and immediate communications all the while developing faster, better and more efficient methods to do just that. Essentially, the more technology changes, the more the opinions fashioned regarding technology stay the same.
Samuel Morse was born in 1791 in the quaint New England town of Charlestown, Massachussettes. Growing up Samuel excelled in painting, particularly painting portraits. But it wasn’t his artistic abilities that would emblaze his name in the annals of history. Rather, it was his invention of Morse Code and the Telegraph System that could transport messages, spelled out in code, at lightning speed. The reason for this discovery is actually fascinating. While painting a portrait of the Marquis de Lafayette in Washington, DC, for which he was commissioned by New York City, Samuel Morse received two urgent letters. The first letter, received via horseman, alerted Morse that his wife had taken severely ill and was now convalescent. The second letter, received the very next day and by the same manner, explained the details surrounding the death of Morse’s wife. Although Morse rushed home, his arrival came only after his wife had already been buried.
After this horrible news and tragic event, Morse dedicated his days to finding a method of rapid, instant communication. Without going into the details of electromagnetism and the claims over who shared in his invention (that was an argument best carried out in the patent offices), what Morse invented was a relay system that could send messages instantly over hundreds of miles as long as the proper wire was stretched between the two telegraph machines. Morse further invented a code language, involving long and short taps on the telegraph machine, for transporting those messages which we know today as Morse Code. The tiny invention forever changed not only the United States but the world. Western expansion in America was greatly sped along and enhanced by the telegraph. The telegraph even played a crucial role in our nation’s greatest crisis to date: The Civil War.
Now that the boring facts are out of the way we can visit how people viewed the telegraph. In short, they didn’t like it. First off, printing presses were holy ground. Thousands of newspapers populated the country with multiple papers of different political, racial, religious or ethnic affiliation in each town (which at most may have contained 2,500 people). With the invention of the telegraph, citizens felt that the (and I’m summarizing so as not to bore you) stream of public opinion had become too watered down. Now, any citizen in America could write an opinion piece and, rather than walking it over to their local paper, could wire that story to every paper in America that supported their political leanings. In short, the access to media, information and the availability of freedom of input had watered down the holy profession of journalism.
And at this point we veer off to discuss journalism in general. In the 1800’s (and earlier) newspapers and media outlets were heavily, and unabashedly, affiliated with a set of principles. The writers and publishers of those papers used them as nothing more than propaganda machines to sway public opinion. Take for example the election of 1860. It was customary then, if you can believe it, for the Presidential candidates to remain out of the public spotlight. Thus, their party platform was either celebrated or lambasted by newspapers until the nation went to the polls and voted for a party line. Thus, until Abraham Lincoln’s fabled (and sometimes troubled) steam train trip from his current home state of Illinois (in a twist of irony he was actually born in Kentucky just like Jefferson Davis) all the way to the White House (which was still under construction) most of the nation had not heard the great orator speak. They had not even heard his stances on the issues. So sure, it was a different time in some respects, but the impartiality and bias that remain to this day were omnipresent at the time.
When I hear people lambaste the news stations today, claiming that they are biased and we should go back to the “good days of ethical journalism” I chuckle inside. The idea that there was a golden age where journalism (specifically national, political journalism) was anything other than propaganda is laughable. In fact, one might argue that we are better off today where our news outlets are more beholden to corporate overlords, underwriters and sponsors than they are to political parties and religious doctrines. Although, those people would be remiss to know that the United States used to face elections with literally dozens of parties on the ballot. Gone are the Federalists, the Know-Nothing Party (aka The American Party), The Constitutional Party, The Anti-Nebraska Party, The Whig Party, The Greenback Party, The Silver Republican Party and so on and so forth.
So where were we? Ah, yes. Technology. Today we have things like Twitter, Facebook, Reddit, Snapchat, Tindr and a million other apps that people my age don’t understand. Many of us old coots are inclined to rail against this technology. Certainly younger generations are suffering from weakened attention spans and information overload. Perhaps they are distracted by all the content on each internet page. But, alas, evolution forces us, as rational people, to accept that humans are but mere animals that will forever be plowing forward waving aloft the flag of advancement. The advent of technology is too powerful for anyone to stop it be they politician, social commentator or Kardashian. Rather, technology should be embraced. For as society seeks to better understand each other on our march to globalization, it is these immediate methods of communication that will allow us to better understand each other. And, “to understand your enemy as a human being is to make that person no longer an enemy but a friend.”
Until next month when we discuss either how I’m an asshole or how Abraham Lincoln was a racist.