Of Many Things

Wellfleet’s outer beach is just about an hour’s drive from my boyhood home on Cape Cod. The spot is well known for a steep, 50-foot sand cliff that rises behind it, topped by a gently sloping upland that affords a graceful vista of the Atlantic, exactly the sort of spot that prompted Henry David Thoreau to say of Cape Cod that “a man may stand there and put all of America behind him.” There may be a craggy point or two in Maine that’s technically farther east, but Wellfleet is about as far east as you can get in the continental United States. “Next stop, Portugal!” my dad would almost always say as he got out of our station wagon and pointed to the ocean.

Wellfleet’s relative proximity to Portugal also brought Guglielmo Marconi here in the winter of 1903. From a tower above the outer beach, Marconi successfully completed the first transatlantic wireless communication between the United States and England. The Wellfleet Historical Society placed a bronze plaque on the original site in 1953; and every time we visited the beach, Dad would gather us around it and, in homage to Signor Marconi’s genius, he would read the plaque out loud: “Site of the first U.S. Transatlantic Wireless Telegram addressed to Edward VII, King of England, by Theodore Roosevelt, President of the United States.” If my grandmother were with us, she would add that “Signor Marconi was a Catholic, you know,” and we would then descend the steep slope in search of less historically minded pursuits.

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Only 100 years have passed since Marconi’s triumph, yet he would hardly recognize the contemporary world: Telegraphy gave way to radio, which gave way to television, which gave way to the Internet. Now I can send a text to an iPhone in Lisbon while I’m lounging on the outer beach or bathing in Oahu or fly-fishing in Juneau. “The world got smaller that day,” Dad would say about Marconi’s broadcast. At the same time, the world became infinitely more complex and frightfully more impersonal. The fathers at the Second Vatican Council addressed this ambivalence in the “Decree on the Means of Social Communication”:

The Church recognizes that these media, if properly utilized, can be of great service to mankind, since they greatly contribute to men’s entertainment and instruction as well as to the spread and support of the Kingdom of God. The Church recognizes, too, that men can employ these media contrary to the plan of the Creator and to their own loss. Indeed, the Church experiences maternal grief at the harm all too often done to society by their evil use.

So where do Apple and Steve Jobs fit into all of this? Was Jobs another Marconi? In 100 years time will some family on their way to the beach take a detour to Cupertino to read a bronze plaque? If it were left up to John Anderson, perhaps not. In his review of the new Steve Jobs biopic in this issue, Mr. Anderson writes, “Nowhere in the film is a case made that the man made life better for anyone. It would be a hard case to make.” Anderson cites the demise of the music industry and the dwindling number of brick-and-mortar bookstores as evidence that Jobs actually made things worse. For my part, I’m not sure that Steve Jobs should be held to account for all that. But neither do I think that he was “a singular genius who remade the world.” I tend to think that Steve Jobs was much like the rest of us: an amalgam of lights and shadows. Even Marconi had a dark side: He was not just a committed Fascist; Mussolini was the best man at his wedding.

In the end, only God knows whether Steve Jobs was a good man. What I know is that I could write most of this column on an iPad on a flight from Toronto. That, at least, is a pretty good thing.

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Bruce Snowden
4 years 3 months ago
What I worry about relative to the dominance of electronic communication is that, not only will newspapers, magazines and especially books cease to exist in forms long known and consequently libraries too, but an entwining ego-centric society will result, signs already visible in the "iPad" "iPod" the 'iPhone" the singular "I" idolization of the "ME" no longer emphasis on the communal "WE." And what about liturgy down the road? Will electronic devices like iPads or whatever, replace Lectionary and Sacramentary in book form on the altar, electronics all over the Church and in the pockets of the people, creating a certain cold and heartless non-relational assembly? Now I'm no Bible thumping Fundamentalist, but I wonder if the up-and-coming universal non-communal "silent treatment" of person- to-person communication,, of non-verbal non-audial communication, this coldness, is part of the Gospel indicator saying that one of the signs of the "End Times," will be that "Love will grow cold." That's for heads smarter than mine to figure out. But I must say I do not like what is happening to humanity in inter-personal verbal relationships .Steve Jobs was probably in his own way righteous, but has he built nothing other than a new "Tower of Babel?" In a word, self-centered, self-absorbed.
Craig McKee
4 years 4 months ago
WAS JOBS ANOTHER MARCONI? Absolutely NOT! Marconi's goal was to bring people TOGETHER. Jobs' was profit-driven and market-oriented. And what's worse, I think Jobs and his products are leading to the reduction of human interaction. Case in point: During a 27 hour Greyhound bus ride to Houston to obtain my Chinese work visa, nearly everyone on the bus was "wired." In the neighboring youth hostel where I crashed for a nite while waiting for another bout of bureaucratic abuse at the Chinese Consulate, I noticed that almost none of the kids at the hostel were interacting or even speaking to each other, walking around "wired" instead with their iPads, iPods, iPhones, tablets and laptops - keeping in touch with folks back home. What a pity. What's the point of traveling to another country and missing out on all the upclose and personal exchanges to be made at the breakfast table? I believe it was Tim Russert (R.I.P.) who urged a Graduating class at TULANE to "GET OUT OF FACEBOOK and into someone's FACE!" Jobs has done quite a JOB on the face of humanity!
Craig McKee
4 years 4 months ago
I was wrong. It was THOMAS FRIEDMAN (World is Flat) at Tulane in 2011: Please remember: The [British Petroleums] of the world, they’re not on Facebook. They’re just in your face. The big fossil fuel companies? They don’t have a chat room. They’re in the cloakroom of the U.S. Congress with bags of political donations. Your life may be digital, but trust me on this one. Politics is still analogue. It’s still about who can get a million people into Tahrir Square — a million people who will not leave until their demands are met. And if Facebook helps you do that — well, then God bless Facebook. But at the end of the day there is no substitute for human beings out in the streets, ready to stand and fight for what they believe in. There is no substitute for real people, not mouse clicks or avatars, going out in large numbers and making politicians see that they are insisting on change and are ready to risk something for it. That is how we got civil rights in this country, that is how we got labor rights and that is how we got women’s rights. It is how we ended the Vietnam War. It is how the Egyptians ended their tyranny. And it is the only way we will get a green economy. So if you want to get something done in the world, never forget — ultimately — you have to get out of Facebook and into somebody’s face. Read more: http://forward.com/articles/138290/advice-to-the-graduates-get-out-of-facebook-an/#ixzz2cQyPKC8u http://forward.com/articles/138290/advice-to-the-graduates-get-out-of-facebook-an/#

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