Wednesday, September 19, 2012

And the band played on. Actually, no, they stopped once the talk started.

I went to a public talk today on Marconi, the Titanic, and early 20th century media, given by Professor Paul Heyer.  My thoughts on that, emergency communications, and media history, after the break.
First, I would like to say that I love public talks, especially at universities.  You get a wonderful mix of intellectual snobs, people who show up for free things, and undergraduates who are there because their professors told them to Be There or Else.  And all three groups were present here, in full form.  (In case you were wondering, I'm a mix of groups one and two.  And a little bit of three, if you factor in the fact that I found out about the talk from an email my supervisor forwarded.)  I think I've mentioned this before in one of the technic posts, but I've lost whatever ability I had to absorb information purely through audio means.  I do my best, but the mind wanders.  Sometimes, I combat this by bringing a notebook or a laptop; if I keep a running commentary of the discussion, I can usually stay pretty focused.  Sometimes, I just go with the distraction; usually, it's based on something the speaker has said, so at least it's a relevant tangent.

This time, it was perhaps not so relevant.  At one point, Heyer mentioned that some famous Newfoundland author saw Marconi's Canadian station as a boy on a field trip, and it greatly affected him.  (It was a guy who had written some well-known book about the Titanic, I think.)  I had no clue who it could be, and was vaguely worried he might call on me to give an account, after he asked if the description struck a bell for the English Majors in the room.  And that led my mind on a tangent, whereby I considered what I knew about Canadian literature, superimposed on a map of Canada.  It looked something like this:

Sad, or very sad?  You be the judge.
I suppose I should give an account of the talk itself.  Essentially, Heyer spoke on the history of Marconi, with a focus on the communication issues of the Titanic.  While Marconi's invention of the wireless telegraph is a little suspect, he certainly perfected its widespread use as a communication technology.  Heyer talked about the difficulty Marconi had in convincing the American government to switch over to the form, given his own credentials as an Italian immigrant, which eventually led to him developing a station in Northeastern Canada to extend his network.  Eventually, Marconi-brand operators were a common fixture of naval navigation.  The catch was that they weren't the only telegraph operators around, and they tended to be very proprietary, restricting access or ignoring those who tried to send and receive messages from them that weren't part of the Marconi company.  They also kept themselves separate from crew and passengers, preferring to stick to themselves and perfect the receivers and trasmitters.

In the case of the Titanic, there were too telegraph operators, and they sent frantic messages as the ship went down.  They had received messages that there was ice ahead, but the captain of the Titanic decided to press ahead, and keep a sharp lookout.  There was another ship in visual distance, the Californian, which had stopped for the night because they didn't want to navigate through the ice.  Its telegraph operator was asleep, after an exhausting 18 hour shift.  Rather than wake him up, the captain of the Californian observed the Titanic and its flares, and decided that it was okay.  While this version of events is questionable (some say that it was impossible for the ship the Californian saw to be the Titanic, based on their known positions), Heyer argues that it's a case of new technology vs old methodology; one captain heard about the ice problems, but relied on visual confirmation over the wireless message; one preferred to trust his visual assessment of the site rather than send a telegraph to be sure.

From there, Heyer discussed a few different issues.  First, there was a confusion of messages about the sinking, and how only the New York Times got it right immediately, which really bolstered their reputation.  Second, Marconi had a deal with the Times allowing them early access to information the company received, which may have played a part in their reporting.  And third, a senate hearing soon followed, in which the lead senator attempted to press Marconi on his company's proprietary use of the wireless, before and after the sinking.  But he soon was pressured to stop; Marconi's company was viewed by the public as a hero in the entire affair, as it was their tech that allowed news of the sinking to get out at all, and putting them through the wringer in the Senate wasn't going to play very well.  And Heyer closed with a brief summary of Marconi's life after that, as an endorser of *cough* fascism and *cough* Mussolini. 

What struck me about the whole affair was how familiar aspects of the account seemed. They had proprietary communication technology, like we do today.  We have people who mistrust it and prefer to stick to more traditional methods.  The technology industry was in bed with the media, in such a way that fair and balanced reporting is inevitably a little slanted, like today.  And the technology is further intertwined with issues of race (Marconi's nationality) and politics.  In particular, the responses to the disaster reminded me of the responses to 9-11.  Obviously, there are great differences: 9-11 was a premeditated attack, and an attack on the United States in particular, whereas the Titanic was more of an international accident.  But a lot about the responses were the same.  In both cases, there was a massive confusion about what happened immediately after; I still remember the speculation and accusations following 9-11, through every media outlet available.  And there was a political movement shortly after to find someone to blame for so public and tragic a failure.  And both ended in new restrictions for transportation technologies.  The Titanic disaster led to new internationally adopted naval safety regulations, and 9-11 led to stricter airport security. 

What that says to me is that, even with massive differences in circumstances and culture, there are still similarities and patterns to the way we respond and use technology to respond to disaster situations.  And I think it's instances like this that demonstrate the value of media history.  There's a tendency to think that we've all undergone this massive transformation, and as a result, we're like no society that came before.  A closer attention to media history--even a history not centered around such a culturally saturated event like the sinking of the Titanic--helps us better understand what actually is different, and what's just old patterns repeating in new forms.

Later Days.

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