My View from South Hill
Tuesday, November 10, 2009
Last weekend one of the chores on my to-do list was to hook up a new DVD player, replacing one that no longer worked. Inevitably whenever I tackle something like this I end up with an extra cable or some other part that is presumably important to correct operation of the device. Whenever I get frustrated with technologies I do not understand, however, I realize that they put into our hands a power that was previously reserved for the very wealthy or the very powerful. The DVD player, for example, enables us to view any recorded performance at any time of our choosing, an opportunity that just forty years ago was reserved for the privileged few.
Consider for example the case of Howard Hughes. When Hughes moved to Las Vegas in the mid-1960’s, his notorious behavioral quirks were well advanced. He had trouble sleeping at night and liked to watch movies on TV at all hours. He could do this in major urban markets like Los Angeles where TV stations broadcast on a 24-hour basis. But Las Vegas in the mid-1960’s was not such a market. Every night the manager of KLAS-TV in Las Vegas would receive a late night phone call at home from one of Hughes’s assistants, asking him to keep the station open for an extra hour and to put on a particular movie that Hughes wanted to see. The manager was understandably reluctant to keep the station open for an audience of one, even if that audience member was a billionaire. Hughes eventually got so frustrated that in 1967 he bought the TV station for $3.6 million. Thereafter, the station broadcast through the night and played the movies Mr. Hughes wanted to see.
As I hooked up my DVD player, it occurred to me that for $50 (for the DVD player) and a $10 monthly subscription to a DVD-in-the-mail service, I possessed (once I got the thing connected properly) the same power of control that cost Howard Hughes $3.6 million in 1967. Today almost anyone can watch movies like a billionaire!
This is just one example of the radical democratization that technological advance has brought us. My ability to publish these words and your ability to find them is another example. Yes, we need to be constantly alert to ethical issues surrounding the use of new technologies. We need to emphasize the ways in which technology can extend human capabilities and enhance human dignity rather than diminish us. Still, we have only to take a short look back in time to realize the degree of control and convenience new technologies have given us – the kind of control only billionaires could afford a scant forty years ago.
Which means that we are all millionaires now!
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