The mass proliferation of technology that offering easy access to music began in the late 1800s. According to Mark Coleman’s book Playback: From the Victrola to MP3, 100 Years of Music, Machines, and Money, before the 20th century, listening to music was “a rare treat…. a temporal, fleeting experience.” The first widely popular form of recorded music was the phonograph. It was invented in 1877, and and their mass productions begins in the 1890s. Radio broadcasting began in England in the 1920s, and the British Broadcasting Corporation was founded in 1922. Radio rapidly grew in popularity, and by 1933, half the households in Britain had a radio. Before the proliferation of television, radio was the dominant home entertainment medium, for many the primary way they listened to music and received the news. Live music proved a popular choice for early radio stations because it offered better sound quality of live music than much of the available recorded music.
Technology plays a crucial role in our poem, as the radio is the object driving the speaker’s emotions. The radio has a contradictory role in our poem. On the one hand, it links the speaker with his love, letting him listen to the same sounds she is hearing live in a concert hall far away. At the same time, listening to the concert alone in his living room only intensifies his isolation. We can frame this divide as a distinction between the material exterior and the psychological interior. The radio itself, the material device with its “glowing wavebands” that offer “rabid storms of chording” give the speaker a tangible way to connect to his lover, and yet, psychologically, our particular speaker is saddened by the one-sidedness of his connection.
Much recent thinking about music and recording devices highlights its isolating role. For example, “the Walkman Effect,” a term coined in 1984, refers to the way music listened to via headphones gives people increased control over their aural environment, providing them with increased power to ignore external stimuli. While Walkmen might seem obviously isolating, they were not perceived that way originally. Interestingly, as described in the Wikipedia article on the topic, “When Sony released the first Walkmans, they featured two headphone jacks and a "talk button." When pressed, this button activated a microphone and lowered the volume to enable those listening to have a conversation without removing their headphones. Sony Chairman Akio Morita added these features to the design for fear the technology would be isolating. Though he thought it would be considered rude for one person to be listening to his music in isolation people bought their own units rather than share and these features were removed for later models.”
Today, smart phones are often scorned as cloistering devices, and the conventional wisdom is that, when people use these devices at at a live performance, the phones are taking people’s consciousness away from the event at hand. Smart phones are ubiquitous, and at any live concert I attend these days, it seems like at almost any given moment 1/3rd of the audience is recording the show on a smart phone. Seen from this disapproving perspective, technological mediation is inherently anti-social and anti-experiential, as if, by watching a song through your phone’s screen, you’re not really experiencing the concert.
Yet, I increasingly find this viewpoint close-minded (something that might surprise my friends who never cease to make fun of the fact I prefer a flip phone). I’m reminded of the time I asked a professor of mine what he thought about the fact that children use irregular vocabulary and grammar when texting, and I assumed this British senior citizen would undoubtedly rage against the bastardization of standard English. So imagine my surprise when he told me that he found these new forms of communication delightful and exciting, and, in fact, he was enthusiastic that kids were finding new ways of expressing themselves.
I have come around to thinking the same of smart phones. Their ubiquity now give us new shared social practices and new means of collectively experiencing an event. One definition of ritual is “a series of actions or type of behavior regularly and invariably followed by someone” and, with that as our definition, we can reliably say smartphones give us new social rituals.
Evidence A: a recent performance by Sir Mix-A-Lot’s performance of “Baby Got Back” with the Seattle Symphony Orchestra
At 1:53, Sir Mix-A-Lot takes out his phone for a selfie. When I first watched this, I found that moment so odd. He knows the event is being recorded by the symphony, and from the stage, he can see that many people in the audience are taking out their phones to record it too. So why would he remove himself from the situation to take a selfie? I realized while watching this that he’s not taking the image just for himself. Rather, taking the photo constitutes a social act. The act of taking a photo can serve many purposes, and one of them is to mark an event as important, as worthy of documenting. Moreover, by deeming an event worthy of a photo and by later sharing the photo with others, you make this ritual a public act. In calling it a ritual, I don’t mean to imply a great deal of intentionality. I don’t think Sir Mix-A-Lot is thinking “I want to distinguish this event from others and let people know I’m marking it as important, so I will publicly take this photo and share it.” Rather, by calling it a ritual, I want to highlight the fact that selfies at public events have quickly become a form of behavior shared by people around the globe. They are a form of unconscious ritual, something you do without really considering its meaning, just like taking off your hat during the national anthem at a baseball game.
Ritual has two kind of power. Firstly, there is the meaning of the particular act itself, its specific symbolism. Secondly, a ritual has power simply by dint of being it is shared behavior. This second level makes taking a selfie during a concert or recording the performer’s encore anything but an isolating act. Instead, it’s a communal one. Be recording, you’re implicitly showing yourself as a member of a larger collective, demonstrating you know one of the socially sanctioned ways of behaving at that event. Furthermore, new technology and social media also lets us share experiences with a rapidity and breadth that is brand new. Now you can instantaneously share the event by posting it to Facebook or Instagram, thereby letting your friends know what you have been up to. Finally, using smart phones during shows also allows individual connections between people. If I take a video of an event and send it to my friend, arguably I’m not distracted when my phone is out during the concert. Perhaps I’m actually hyperaware, hyper connected, thinking not only of myself but of my friend as well.
Larkin's poem “Broadcast” highlights the duality inherent to technology. Even though the poem was written over 50 years ago, it serves as a succinct description of the dilemma technology and social media pose to us today. Audio and visual technology, both of which are found nowadays on our phones (even my Samsung Convoy 3!), offer the possibility of both linkage and isolation. Moreover, they offer us the possibility of being both linked and isolated at the same time through the same act. Our own smartphones, much like the radio in "Broadcast," has no inherent power. Instead, its meaning is what we make of it.
Coleman, Mark, Playback : from the Victrola to MP3, 100 years of music, machines, and money, Cambridge, MA : Da Capo Press, 2005.
Leibowitz, Stan, "The Elusive Symbiosis: The Impact of Radio on the Record Industry," Review of Economic Research on Copyright Issues, 1:1, 93-118, 2004.
Wikipedia articles on "radio," "old-time radio," "Walkman effect," and "phonograph"