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Susan Douglas on: Technology at the Turn of the Century
Susan Douglas SD: I think to understand the appeal of wireless at the turn of the century, you have to understand that people actually had very contradictory feelings about technology. On the one hand, there were the electric light, trolley cars, telephone, etc., that brought new light to the streets, increased communication, increased transportation, all of that. And at the same time work was becoming more routinized, labor was becoming more alienated because of the factory system and assembly lines, and wireless was especially miraculous because it seemed like it could possibly transcend some of the pitfalls that had surrounded other kinds of technologies.

Q: Talk about all these other things going on. I mean, there are elevators and electricity.

SD: People's environment had changed enormously in 30 years, and electric lights lit up the streets. There were no telephones proliferating throughout the United States by 1906. I think there are more phones in New York than there are in France. Trolley cars, trains, etc., speeding up travel. Transatlantic cable and the telegraph have made for instant communications. People really have a sense of being hurdled forward by technology, and there's a great deal of celebration about that, especially since this is marked as the century of progress, and the century is turning and there is this enormous celebration of how far the country has come. And this, too, is tied to the United States' victory, for better or for worse, over Cuba and the Philippines, and the recognition that through this technology, in part, the United States has become an imperial power.

So there are lots of reasons why people are feeling very celebratory about technology, but they're also feeling cautious and concerned, because at the very same time assembly lines, the bureaucratization of American life is making people feel like technology is taking away some of the spontaneity and control that they have over their lives. And it's within this atmosphere that wireless telegraphy enters the scene in 1899. And what wireless promises is a new communications technology that, unlike the telegraph wires and unlike the cable lines, which, by this time are controlled by giant monopolies like Western Union, this doesn't have any wires. It doesn't have any lines. And so there's a hope that this technology is going to allow people to escape monopoly control of communication. So there's a great deal of utopian projection onto wireless that I think speaks to these very contractory feelings about technology at the turn of the century.

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