Back in August, Terry Teachout suggested in the Wall Street Journal that those of us grappling with new media take a few lessons from the history of TV. Television succeeded for a number of reasons, he says, including its unanimous, unquestioning acceptance by the people.
Americans of all ages embraced TV unhesitatingly. They felt no loyalty to network radio, the medium that had entertained and informed them for a quarter-century. When something came along that they deemed superior, they switched off their radios without a second thought. That’s the biggest lesson taught by the new-media crisis of 1949. Nostalgia, like guilt, is a rope that wears thin.
But is this accurate? Did everyone embrace it “without a second thought?”
In a remarkable essay “A Forecast of Television” (1935), Rudolf Arnheim wrote:
Television is a new, hard test of our wisdom. If we succeed in mastering the new medium it will enrich us. But it can also put our mind to sleep. We must not forget that in the past the inability to transport immediate experience and to convey it to others made the use of language necessary and thus compelled the human mind to develop concepts. For in order to describe things one must draw the general from the specific; one must select, compare, think. When communication can be achieved by pointing with the finger, however, the mouth grows silent, the writing hand stops, and the mind shrinks.
More from the same article:
Television will make up for actual physical presence even more than does radio. All the more isolated will be the individual in his retreat, and the balance of trade will be correspondingly precarious: an enormous influx of riches, consumption without services in return. The pathetic hermit, squatting in his room, hundreds of miles away from the scene that he experiences as his present life, the ‘viewer’ who cannot even laugh or applaud without feeling ridiculous, is the final product of a century-long development, which has led from the campfire, the market place, and the arena to the lonesome consumer of spectacles today.
Arnheim does not fit into Terry Teachout’s plan. He neither embraced TV nor fled to the past. He wrote of its potential dangers, but he was no misty-eyed radio-knob-turner. His wariness of the new technology was prescient, not nostalgic.
What can we learn from the past? That TV was immensely popular but not unanimously and unquestioningly accepted. Nor were the critics all clinging to the past. No matter what trends come our way, no matter how popular they may be, they need critics so they don’t get out of hand.