Hindsight, Foresight, And No Sight

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One of the most interesting demonstrations of the radio concept of telephony occurred in Hungary, where in 1893 an entrepreneur named Theodore Puskas established a telephone-newspaper that eventually gained more than six thousand subscribers. The daily program available over the telephone included news and sports reports, stock market quotations, reports on proceedings in Parliament, and, in the evenings, theater, concerts, and lectures.

“The Pleasure Telephone opens out a vista of infinite charm,” wrote an enchanted contemporary of Puskas. Hungary in the last decade of the nineteenth century even provides us with a remarkable foreshadowing of our modern video-cassette recorders. To accommodate subscribers to the telephone-newspaper, a phonograph was attached to the telephone receiver “in such a way that the first sound over the wire would start the phonograph, which would then record the news, and make it available for the subscriber at his convenience.”

Today the telephone-newspaper survives in a minor way in the recorded announcements that provide telephone subscribers with the time, the weather, and the latest sports results. The “pleasure telephone” survives in services such as Dial-A-Joke and Dial-A-Poem. In times of spiritual crisis, telephone subscribers can Dial-A-Prayer. A few years ago, New Yorkers in need of sympathy could Dial a Shoulder, but that service has been discontinued.

In general, however, the telephone as a one-way broadcasting medium turned out to be a dead end—unknown to everyone except historians who concern themselves with what the English historian Asa Briggs has called “the rejected alternatives of communications history.” Radio itself doomed the radio concept of telephony.

If he were alive today, William Orton might derive some comfort from a perusal of The Experts Speak , a compendium of “expert misinformation, disinformation, misunderstanding, miscalculation, … and occasional just plain lies” edited by Christopher Cerf and Victor Navasky. Here we learn that though Orton may have made the worst decision in American business history, as a prophet he had some impressive competition.

The department store magnate John Wanamaker once said, “Half the money I spend on advertising is wasted, and the trouble is I don’t know which half.”

In 1845 the U.S. Postmaster General rejected an opportunity to purchase the rights to Samuel Morse’s telegraph for $100,000 with the comment that he doubted that “under any rate of postage that could be adopted, its revenues could be made equal to its expenditures.”

An investigating committee established by the British Parliament found Edison’s work on the electric light “unworthy of the attention of practical or scientific men.” Edison himself thought his phonograph “not of any commercial value.”

The renowned British physicist Lord Kelvin announced in 1897 that “radio has no future.” A decade later a business executive told radio pioneer Lee De Forest that he could put in a single room “all the radiotelephone apparatus that the country will ever need.” De Forest himself announced in 1926 that, “while theoretically and technically television may be feasible, commercially and financially I consider it an impossibility, a development of which we need waste little time dreaming.”

So it goes: Year after year, decade after decade, century after century, our ancestors have made fools of themselves. We always laugh at the electrical toy; van Gogh never sells his paintings; Melville always dies unrecognized. The only safe prediction is that people will go on making dumb predictions.

Santayana’s famous warning that those who forget the past are doomed to repeat it is accurate but incomplete. Those who remember the past are also doomed to repeat it, but not in ways that anyone can foresee. In outwitting ourselves we display endless ingenuity. Sometimes we misremember; sometimes we misinterpret; sometimes we misapply the lessons we imagine we have learned.

“We should not be too harsh about forecasters,” wrote the late Ithiel de Sola Pool, the former director of MIT’s Research Program on Communications Policy. “We have the benefit of hindsight now, yet it is not much easier to answer the questions about the past than about the present or future. Postdiction is almost as hard as prediction; aftcasts almost as hard as forecasts.” We can remember some of the past some of the time, but we can’t remember all of it—not ever—and we’re never quite sure that we understand the part we remember.

John Wanamaker once said, “Half the money I spend on advertising is wasted, and the trouble is I don’t know which half.” So it is with the study of history, and so it is with prophecy. History tells us that half of what we learn from history is wrong, and it tells us that half our current prophecies are wrong, but it does not tell us which half. Whether we look forward or backward, we see as through a glass darkly. Into the future we stumble, with William Orton as our guide.