The Coming of Wireless
The Coming of Wireless
The Archbishop of York discusses possible advantages and disadvantages
THE INVENTION of 'wireless' will certainly rank among the most influential of all the triumphs of applied science. Like all such inventions, it can be used to the benefit — the incalculably great benefit — of mankind; but also like most of them, it can be used to great detriment. The problem of mastering the products of science and extracting their full measure of benefit is one of the characteristic tasks of our generation. In many departments of life the issue looks like a struggle of Man versus Machinery, with Machinery winning. And so long as the problem is regarded in that way, Machinery will win. Man must regard Machinery not as an enemy, but as an ally, indeed a servant; then he will receive its friendly service.
But this means that he must have a purpose in life which he intends that Machinery shall serve. If he has no such purpose, but only drifts as a plaything of circumstance, Machinery will become the most menacing of the circumstances and will dominate life. Already in the economic sphere that process has gone far; and it is bad enough in that department; it will be far worse if the same process becomes established in the sphere of the mind and the spirit. It is here that the perils of broadcasting lie.
• • • •
During the last fifty years we have seen a steady development of the means of popular entertainment or occupation. Nine-tenths of this has been to the good. But whereas there used to be periods when most people would be bored unless they developed some resource of their own, now there is hardly any such moment; and of course the result is that many who would once have done so now do not develop their own resources at all. There is always a picture theatre to visit, or a match or a race to see or read of, or, if all other external resources fail, the wireless can be turned on and some sort of significant noises will at once assail the ear. So people pass from one mind-tickler to another, and the effect of each and all is 'to make idler yet a mind already idle'.
The evil is at its maximum in the case of children. Those whose means permit such folly seem now to think that children in the nursery or boys home from school for the holidays should never be left for one moment without entertainment for fear they should be bored. But they ought to be bored unless they are able to amuse themselves. Under the constant irritation of perpetual amusement their nervous system becomes over-excitable, their power to create interests of their own is sapped, and their capacity for concentrated attention (the most fundamental capacity in life) remains embryonic. We are giving no chance to what Aristotle called the vegetable soul in man.
• • • •
The special trouble about wireless is that it adds to the other plagues of a machine-ridden era the enormous influence of mass-suggestion. At any one moment several millions of British people are hearing Mr. Baldwin or Mr. Lansbury speak, or are listening to Beethoven's Fifth Symphony, or are following through narrators' eyes the University Boat Race. All of these are excellent things to do. But the fact that so large a proportion of the nation is receiving its mental pabulum at the same time and in the same form is rather terrifying. The prospect is more alarming when we turn to philosophy and religion. In each of these departments the value of a conclusion reached or of a conviction held depends very largely on the thoroughness of the discipline through which it is reached. But nowadays we can all sit back and with no preparatory discipline absorb the conclusions of scientific research or the convictions that crystallise religious experience, and suppose that we understand these things. One shudders to think what muddy porridge will be the substitute for clean-cut thought in minds which during their formative period have been held as buckets to receive spoutings from the multifarious prophets offering their wares today.
The worst has been spared us in this country—that is, the control of this almost omnipotent agency of suggestion by a Government determined to allow the encouragement of no outlook but its own. Plato's description of a tyrannical soul tyrannising over a community is one of the most terrifying pictures drawn by human art. But Dionysius II had not wireless; his modem counterparts have.
• • • •
I have put the perils and evils first, because we tend to ignore them and it seems to me vital that we should face them. But of course there is another side to the picture. For example, though there is a great power of mass-suggestion in one man's ability to speak to a whole. nation at once, there is also a diminution of the power of clap-trap through the fact that electors, as last autumn, not only sit in eager crowds listening to candidates, but also sit alone or in critical groups listening to the men most responsible for national policy. There is here an appeal to detached and critical intelligence such as former electoral methods did not facilitate. Or again, if there is risk of mental indigestion in the hearing of lectures by all the chief scientists and philosophers, at least the general public is brought into direct contact with first-class students of their subjects instead of being at the mercy of popular manuals, or streetcorner orators who declare that 'Science tells us' what leading men of science began to abandon twenty years ago. In the realm of art, and especially of music, the gain already is incalculable. Thousands are rejoicing in good music today who would never have listened to it and therefore never have found out that they liked it, if it had not been brought into their homes.
If the gains are to be garnered and the losses avoided two needs must be met — one among listeners, one at Headquarters. There must be constant effort to promote intelligent and critical listening. The various discussion circles formed by educational agencies and by officials of the BBC itself are helping towards this. Every possible opportunity must be taken to cultivate this frame of mind, both as a thing precious in itself and as the only alternative to the morass of mental decrepitude into which an indolent use of this great invention may plunge the next generation. But if people will listen with alert intelligence, and will take trouble to understand, not only to apprehend, what is put before them, wireless offers an opportunity such as we never had before of bringing to birth that educated democracy which alone can preserve freedom for the world.
At Headquarters there is need for liberty in a double sense. First, the direction of broadcasting must be free from external control. It will be a sign that freedom itself is in the direst danger if ever the Government insists on control of the matter selected for the microphone. Some measure of momentary control is, of course, reasonable—in some crisis like the General Strike, or at moments of delicate diplomatic negotiation. But broadly, the Government can show itself as the guardian of liberty only if it entrusts to others—as in our country it has done—the control of programmes.
And the authority so entrusted must go to the extreme limits of public toleration in permitting varieties of opinion to be expressed. No sincerely-held convictions should be boycotted. Only one thing should be ruled out—abusive or contemptuous reference to the beliefs of others. Freedom in the utilisation of this great instrument is of importance so vital that the deliberate tilting of the balance should always be towards the inclusion, rather than the exclusion, of topics to which in some quarters exception may be taken. The manner or presentation may well be controlled—for what is spoken in the homes of simple people must not have the same latitude in expression as what is addressed to selected audiences; but there should be grave hesitation and anxiety before any theme is totally barred.
• • • •
Like all great new inventions, wireless brings a searching test of our moral resources, and specially searching because of its influence upon the springs of thought and feeling. Yet if we will use it wisely it can be itself a veritable fount of wisdom, leading to fuller knowledge, richer wisdom, wider mutual understanding, deeper sympathy, and through all these to more genuine fellowship of the spirit.