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  • T. W. Emory

Give and Take

Before recorded music, it was common for people to sing with others in public places, such as in a tavern or in a pub. Songs that were sung could be twenty verses or more, dealing with work, battles, buildings, ships, heroic deeds and such. Public sing-alongs gradually fell off with the advent of phonographs, the radio, and motion pictures. The 78 rpm phonograph records could hold only about three minutes of sound per side, so shorter songs became the norm. Unless a person sang in church or was a member of a choir or a glee club, more and more people began to know less about carrying a tune, or simply became inhibited about singing in public against an artificially high standard imposed by the recording industry. Radio and motion pictures also pretty much ended vaudeville as well as many communal plays and stage performances. Social interaction changed a bit more when television came into wide popular use, so that movie attendance suffered and radio began to take a backseat. While television has never completely replaced face-to-face interaction, still, such things as the convenience of picking and choosing shows on demand and having conflicts resolved relatively quickly and neatly have certainly added to the charms and seductions of this technology. And, with smartphones and other TV-connected devices beginning to displace more traditional TV viewing, some see new limits being placed on social contacts. Too, the pervasive use of computer and phone keyboards has caused many to bemoan the end of handwritten letters and to speak of “the death of handwriting.” As the media theorist and cultural critic Neil Postman once said: “A bargain is struck in which technology giveth and technology taketh away.” So it has been, and so it continues to be.

Some cultural changes are very gradual and slow, while other changes are fairly quick and perhaps a bit nuanced, especially when it comes to social interaction, and particularly that caused by a dramatic development like the smartphone—considered by some to be the biggest breakthrough technology in the last 25 years. As an interesting example, the actor John O’Hurley voiced the opinion in a recent interview that the TV show Seinfeld “can’t work today because the cell phone would have killed it.” O’Hurley, who played J. Peterman on the popular 1990s sitcom, added that Seinfeld “… was about people engaging and thoughtfully engaging in minutia … There were no cell phones in Seinfeld.” Of course, more and more cell phones were actually in use by the late 1990s, but there was nothing then to compare to the ubiquitous smartphones of today. And so, O’Hurley’s point appears to be that had the principal characters of Seinfeld been glued to smartphones the way many people are today, it wouldn’t be the same show or have the same social resonance that it did when the show first aired. Again, as Neil Postman said, “technology giveth and technology taketh away.” And as he also observed: “Technology always has unforeseen consequences, and it is not always clear, at the beginning, who or what will win, and who or what will lose.”

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