Some Thoughts on Media and Choice

Some Thoughts on Media and Choice

John Blake Arnold


I am going to start this little opinion piece by referencing a television show from the 1970’s and early 1980’s (which frankly I personally feel went on and on far too long, but other people loved it) and that T.V. show was called “Little House On The Prairie.” The reason I bring up this popular NBC television program is that it, and “The Waltons” on CBS, were documents of a earlier, different time in American life. Little House would have been the time of my grandfather’s parents (roughly 1870-1900), and The Waltons would have been the time of my mother and father’s extreme youth in the 1930’s and 40’s.

What I want to reference from these television programs is that media, information, education, and books in general were a function of technology. In Little House, folks are moving across a prairie and homesteading and building their lives from scratch-- anything that they had, they had to build themselves. They had to plant their own food; they had to cut their own lumber. And in terms of media and education, there was a community newspaper and their were books delivered from the East Coast of the United States by mail order which cost a lot of money.

So the books that someone would have had access to, and the books that folks could easily discuss would have been limited to The Holy Bible (most probably the King James Version), Shakespeare, Grimm’s Fairy Tales, the newspaper, Mark Twain, Harriet Beecher Stowe’s “The Key to Uncle Tom’s Cabin” (the best-selling novel of the 19th century and the second best-selling book of that century, following the Bible), Melville’s “Moby Dick,” Alcott’s “Little Women,” Thoreau’s “Walden,” Whitman’s “Leaves of Grass,” and whatever passed for the Sear’s and Robuck catalogue or JC Penny’s print ads. THAT WAS IT for the time of “Little House on the Prairie.”

There was telegraph, but only along the railroad. THERE WAS NO RADIO or TELEPHONE. There was U.S. Mail Postal service and the Wells Fargo Wagon which took weeks because there were no aircraft. There was only the railroad for mass transport. So dispersal of information and gossip and news was a commodity.

By the time described in The Waltons (the 1930’s), we watch the family get a radio; telephone is present, but there is only one telephone for the whole town-- if a person got a phone call, someone had to be sent to the farm on horse or bicycle to tell them that there was a call. In fact the major transition from horse and carriage to automobile was still happening into World War II. Telegraph would have been the primary delivery service. And while printing presses had become more widespread on the populated East Coast, libraries were not widely present as they are now in municipalities.

The first large public library supported by taxes was the Boston Public Library which did not open it’s doors until 1848, and it took billionaire Andrew Carnegie, who bookmade his money in the very early part of the 20th century to endow what we typically consider the wide-spread public libraries of today across the country. So during the time represented in The Waltons television program, once again, they did not yet have access to the information easily obtainable from the library.

So despite nearly fifty years, up until the end of World War II, print media and what a typical family had access to was very much unchanged-- it would have been those books listed above such as The Bible, Shakespeare, and Mark Twain, but when materials were being printed, they were often instruction manuals for machines, educational materials, reprints of well known books from Great Britain. Even until the 1950’s, a person who was a professional in some sort of business such as a doctor of medicine, an accountant, an architect, these folks might have a personal library specific to their occupational need-- and that may have been 5 to 10 books that backed their way particular of doing business. In fact, both the United States Armed forces and commercial businesses often printed their own materials for in-house consumption that made their way to the masses, and were reused-- often long before a municipal library was built in the expanding United States.

And let me say here, while we assume it was magazines and catalogs in the outhouses and privys, one of the ongoing jokes is one should not have their likeness printed, because it was simply going to inevitably be used for somebody else’s backside at some point.

So consider for a minute, the limited choice available up until the end of the 1950’s for the consumption of media by the public: books were decided by the school, church, or family and they cost money-- so only the necessary books would be purchased and available. There was radio, and people did quickly buy radio for the home, but the choices were again limited to only 3 or 4 broadcasters is the house could receive the transmission, and it was AM only. So the radio was mostly for public address, news, and a few dramatic or musical programs typically featuring classical music.

Records, singles first and then long-playing records (LP) were mainly for radio stations to mix up their air play; they were not initially for public purchase because only the wealthy had Victrolas (record players). As the late 1930’s and 1940’s occurred, the purchase of record players would have been first at commercial venues such as night clubs and then finally it trickled into US households with the “Baby Boomers” (the children of the returning US servicemen from WWII) coming of age in the late 1950’s and 1960’s.

So I want to make my primary thesis here: that listeners-- whether young or old, white or black-- made an economic choice for Rock N’ Roll; it was what they bought when they bought records for a personal collection. People began to have a choice in television stations and television programming between the three major networks that had transitioned from radio.

Economic purchases drove the vendors’ willingness to provide new choices for the consumer; but from my nuclear family’s perspective both my mother and father were in their mid-thirties by 1968. in our home, we had a reel-to-reel tape deck and a record player, and my father’s records were Christmas albums and Bing Crosby and Elvis records. When 8-track came around, we may have some Johnny Cash, Marty Robbins, and show music by Rogers and Hammerstein. We had a player piano with piano rolls that had classic songs like “Won’t You Come home Bill Bailey,” or “Those Were The Days.” So in my youth, from my birth in 1968 to 1975, most media choices were still governed by the Big 3 T.V. networks and AM radio. FM radio was still a major deal in 1975, as was the small transistor radio which people could take with them a play on batteries.

Let me digress a moment: “Where were computers?” you might ask.

Computers were basically the purview of really expensive universities and corporations like G.E.; they were the technological descendants of a Alan Touring’s Bletchley Park in Great Britain used to decode the Enigma machine of the Nazis. They were still a great big secret of the military-industrial complex.

When I attended Trinity University in 1986, Trinity had the oldest computer science department in the South, starting in 1963. And in 1963, the computers that they had to program were operated by vacuum tubes and punch card. There was no computer monitor like from a television set: every bit of output was received via a paper printout, but only if the punch card order was exact and properly coded. Students and professors teaching the courses would have to wait for hours, making sure their punch card stacks were in order, so that when their time came to have some time with the computer, they would spend that time as efficiently as possible.

Every punch card was essentially in Assembly or Machine language; it was moving bits in a 4 bit register, and their was no memory to speak of other than the punch cards themselves. And because they were college students (despite being engineers) there was violence and shenanigans over doing bad things to some other poor sap’s punch cards if they ever left one’s sight.

So most of what we think of as ‘computer coding” was done entirely away from a computer: the math and equations were written out in long hand, transferred to typewriter, then typed again into the punch card machine, and then finally made into punch cards-- all away from the computational engine.

There was an article recently in BBC that it was considered newsworthy that students were being taught computer programming without access to computers; and yet this is how our best engineers primarily learned coding in the early days of computation. It fostered a complete understanding of what was actually occurring in the machine.

It is an interesting topic to go Wiki, to look at the history of the first compiler made by Rear Admiral Murray-Hopper (the U.S. Navy’s first female Rear Admiral), and how electronic compilers and error checking went hand-in-hand with new computational languages, input-output methods such as keyboards and monitors, and finally the development of actual operating systems such as UNIX. We don’t get to UNIX until the early 1970’s.

And yet, teletype machines were an outgrowth of the telegraph, and were present before the telephone fax machine. So a punch card program COULD BE teletyped across the country for commercial purposes.

IBM mainframes were probably the most widespread early commercial application of UNIX in the commercial workplace, and these would have appeared in Fortune 500 companies in the very late 1970’s and early 1980’s, and so ELM (electronic mail) and the now all-present “INBOX” of email was present with these IBM mainframes. I remember watching my father getting a piece of mail from California from the Jet Propulsion Laboratory concerning some astronomical data we had asked about as amateur astronomers while members of the Houston Astronomical Society. That was probably 1979.

It was a very big deal for my Dad to ask his boss for a personal Inbox, despite the fact that he made a tremendous amount of money in sales of commercial refrigeration equipment for office towers and hospitals and universities, because it meant that somebody in house was actually USING the computer mainframe-- it wasn’t just sitting there not being broken as a giant corporate investment.

Again, the powers-that-be-- COMMERCIAL POWERS-- made the decisions that allowed ANY TECHNOLOGICAL FREEDOM OF CHOICE AT ALL-- in this case, an IBM mainframe.

That mainframe and probably every other mainframe was connected to Bell telephone network: Ma Bell. So when Steve Wosniak of Apple Computer fame describes (or his biographers describe) his fascination with analog telephone command capability, it was because despite being digital computation devices, the computer was STILL using an analog phone transmission line to carry information by alternating current across the country. And that system could be “hacked” (and here I am unsure if the word “hacked” even existed at that time in the late 1970’s early 1980’s) by a device that typical Bell Telephone workmen used every day to test telephone line connectivity.

I remember my professors at Trinity University telling me what a great joy it was to finally be allowed to do input and output from a type-style keyboard with a monitor-- it was just the greatest thing after all of those punch cards, and some of them had been working with computers for roughly twenty years by that time.

So follow me here for the next point: in 1980, Ronald Reagan becomes President of the United States and gets into a fight with the Air Traffic Controllers of our nation’s various airports. The 747, DC 30, and the Concord already exist and the Space Shuttle is being designed in it’s final stages. Nuclear Arms already exist. And only then by 1980, is there a decent keyboard input, monitor screen output coming into widespread general use for computers.

While commercial industry was pushing the capability of the computer at the Government’s request via economic commercial contracts and grants for companies like GE or IBM or Xerox, most of humanity had no access to any computer other than engineering students, staff at big companies, or military folks-- and most of those people DID NOT DARE mess with the system. Their jobs were to learn how to use the machine-- not upgrade it, or hack it, or do anything other than their jobs.

So if you Wiki the history of Computer Games, you’ll see Pong, and several MUD style text-based games. And these corresponded to the rise of Atari Console, coin arcade video games (and the death of Pinball and Foozeball), and the rise of personal computers like Tandy Company’s TRS-80 Model I, II, and III, Commodore 64, and the Apple.

That is roughly 1982!?! if I remember correctly….

What else came out in the early 1980’s?

The Sony Walkman portable cassette tape player which would run on batteries. The TRS-80 computers would use cassette tapes as analog computer program storage devices which used the same analog telephone modem codes to input and output computational data.

To this day, one of my good friends who I respect mightily as a “pure” programmer continues to code on his Commodore 64 in Assembly. He is perhaps one of the best, most secure programmers in the universe. If I needed someone to hack a program by reverse Assembly, he is the only person of my generation that I know of (the others being the punch card professors of yore) that could do it.

So we’re at personal computers that have possibly a total of 6 to 10 Meg of total memory in the entire computer; floppy disks are as big as record albums and handle less than a Meg.

Everything is programmed in BASIC or if you are an extreme badass-- ALGOL, COBOL, FORTRAN, or MATLAB (which started as a language for a commercial operating system, became a standalone program, became open source, then was somehow bought by somebody, and now is proprietary once again). [Again, one can Wiki the history of Computer Languages, and see that most languages were usually specific to the operating systems to which they communicated).

There were still GOTO statements, because Professor Dykstra had not yet created modular programming as we know it today. C Language had not yet been invented, nor had JAVA. APL (A Programming Language) was the progenitor of C and “was in the house.”

Why is this important?

Because to be a computer programmer in the early 1980’s meant you only had to have written one or two simple, working programs and had access to a computer at all; often only an engineer would know more than one language. Commercially, a programmer could know only FORTRAN or BASIC and be able to pull down a nice salary.

There is a major jump in Moore’s Law that occurs throughout the 1980’s as miniaturization, portability, multiple colors, storage capability, and a widespread fall in price with the advent of the i286 chip and the widespread use of IBM desktops and Apple 2E’s, (and their clones), and DOS and Microsoft 3.1 become the de facto operating systems of industry. I will discuss this in my next part of this article on media and choice, and return to the discussion of television by describing the history of cable and pay-per-view television, the impending failure of AM/FM radio, the rise of compact disk players and digital media, portable cellular phones and pagers, and death of the electric typewriter.

Thanks for reading.



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