communication technologies and the revealing of history

The Readings section of the February 2009 Harper’s (subscription required) has an excerpt from Eula Biss’s “Time and Distance Overcome,” that struck me as appropriate reading for today, a day when the nation is celebrating the inauguration of the first African-American president and the school semester started with discussions about the future of communication technologies and writing. In his address Obama observed:

Our journey has never been one of shortcuts or settling for less. It has not been the path for the fainthearted—for those who prefer leisure over work, or seek only the pleasures of riches and fame. Rather, it has been the risk-takers, the doers, the makers of things—some celebrated, but more often men and women obscure in their labor—who have carried us up the long, rugged path toward prosperity and freedom.

For us, they packed up their few worldly possessions and traveled across oceans in search of a new life.

For us, they toiled in sweatshops and settled the West; endured the lash of the whip and plowed the hard earth.

That recognition of the trials associated with the development of new frontiers, new technologies, new communication devices, is what Biss addresses in “Time and Distance Overcome” (and Harper’s calls “The War on Telephone Poles“—playing wonderfully, sardonically, on the word “on”). Recalling the chief of ABC’s incredulity of needing the domain, Biss reports:

“Of what use is such an invention?” the New York World asked in 1876 after Alexander Graham Bell first demonstrated his telephone. The nation was not waiting for the telephone. Bell’s financial backers asked him not to work on his invention because it seemed too dubious an investment. The idea on which the telephone depended—that every home in the country could be connected with a vast network of wires suspend ed from poles set an average of one hundred feet apart—seemed far less likely than the idea that the human voice could be transmitted through a wire. . . .

By 1889, the New York Times was reporting a “War on Telephone Poles.” Wherever telephone companies erected poles, homeowners and business owners were sawing them down, or defending their sidewalks with rifles. Property owners in Red Bank, New Jersey, threatened to tar and feather the workers putting up telephone poles. . . . The city council in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, ordered policemen to cut down all the telephone poles in town. And the mayor of Oshkosh, Wisconsin, ordered the police chief and the fire department to chop down the telephone poles there. Only one pole was chopped down before the telephone men climbed all the poles along the line, preventing any more chopping. Bell Telephone Company stationed a man at the top of each pole as soon as it had been set, until enough poles had been set to string a wire between them, at which point it became a misdemeanor to interfere with the poles. Even so, a constable cut down two poles holding forty or fifty wires. And the owner of a cannery ordered his workers to throw dirt back into the hole the telephone company was digging in front of his building. His men threw the dirt back in as fast as the telephone workers could dig it out. Then he sent out a team to dump a load of stones into the hole. Eventually the pole was erected on the other side of the street.

Eventually, as it often does, the telephone won out (the telephone pole being a new technology, it won out, too), when “Rutherford B. Hayes pronounced the installation of a telephone in the White House ‘one of the greatest events since Creation.’ The telephone, Thomas Edison declared, ‘annihilated time and space, and brought the human family in closer touch.'” The telephone pole, upon which the telephone’s wires hung and through which the voices of a nation began to spread, much like the fiber-optic cables the Internet zips through today, wiped away distances and connected people.

Yet, there is a darker side of the telephone pole, that inert wooden former tree sitting along the road that I should have guessed:

In 1898, in Lake Cormorant, Mississippi, a black man was hanged from a telephone pole. And in Weir City, Kansas. And in Brookhaven, Mississippi. And in Holdenville, Oklahoma, where the hanged man was “riddled with bullets.” In Danville, Illinois, a black man was hanged from a telephone pole, cut down, burned, shot, and stoned with bricks. A black man was hung from a telephone pole in Belleville, Illinois, where a fire was set at the base of the pole and the man was cut down half alive, covered in coal oil, and burned. While his body was burning, the mob beat it with clubs and cut it to pieces.

The poles, of course, were not to blame. It was only coincidence that they became convenient as gallows, because they were tall and straight, with a crossbar, and because they stood in public places. And it was only coincidence that the telephone poles so closely resembled crucifixes.

When I wrote in a Twitter tweet about the idyllic visions of America’s past depicted in the speeches during the inauguration concert on Sunday, January 18, it was because of my belief in the importance of revealing the horrors of our past, of showing how our humanity can bring us to the amazing moment we witnessed at the capital with the aid of the latest cable, satellite, Internet, highway, electrical, and clothing technologies while at the same time allow anonymous workers in towns and cities in Asia and Africa to toil away in horrific conditions in order to make those technologies possible (Heather Timmons’ amazing piece in the NY Times about the construction of manhole covers provides an excellent example).

The worst offense during the concert was the story of Marian Anderson’s 1939 singing of “My Country ‘Tis of Thee” at the Lincoln Memorial. Though they did mention the Daughters of the American Revolution’s protest over Anderson singing in Consitution Hall, the speech implied that by 1939 regular citizens (as opposed to the Daughters of the American Revolution) were just fine with a black woman singing a song outside, that the make-up of the little shown audience woukld be as diverse as it was today. Frank Rich’s piece from the same Sunday, “White Like Me,” was much more honest of some of the history that took place in front of the Lincoln Memorial:

There was so much we didn’t know, so much Americans still don’t know. Take the Lincoln Memorial, to which the Obama family paid so poignant a nocturnal visit this month. If you look up coverage of the memorial’s 1922 dedication ceremonies in The Times, you can read of President Harding’s forceful oration commemorating the demise of slavery. You also learn that Dr. Robert R. Moton, the president of the Tuskegee Institute, was invited to pay tribute to Lincoln “in the name of 12,000,000 Negroes.”

Here’s what The Times did not report about Moton: “Instead of being placed on the speaker’s platform, he was relegated along with other distinguished colored people to an all-Negro section separated by a road from the rest of the audience.” So wrote Green in “The Secret City,” her landmark history of race relations in Washington. This was no anomaly. A local Ku Klux Klan had been formed months earlier, with no protests from either Congress or the white press, and the young Harding administration had toughened the exclusion of blacks from the city’s public recreation facilities.

The eye-opening “Secret City” recounting this secret history was not published until 1967, some four years after the Lincoln Memorial served as a backdrop for “I Have a Dream.”

We do ourselves—and our students—a great disservice when we white-wash the development of current and former communication technologies from their most-often troubling social, cultural, and human implications. One observation that I had today: the last time the television public saw this many African American people todgether in one place on television was, I suspect, in New Orleans during the aftermath of hurricaine Katrina. What a fantastic contrast. What a spectacular moment of celebration—and, yet, we cannot forget what we saw in New Orleans. Indeed, it is the memory of that suffering (alluded to in Obama’s speech) that makes this moment so much more meaningful, poignent, and powerful. As when as a Jewish man I walked into Auschwitz, stared down the gate reading “Arbacht Macht Frei,” and turned around and walked out.

Our technologies are not merely playthings; they are cognitive artifacts, often of things we would not like to reveal. One of my hopes with this new adminstration is that we, as a nation, will be able to start talking about this more directly, about how the technologies in our lives have revealed humanity’s heights and depths.  Idealistic? Perhaps. But it is hard not to be idealistic today.

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