Most people celebrated the arrival of communications advances, but not A. P. Herbert. In this review of current and future technologies, he denounces the existence or threatened introduction of the Electrophone, radio broadcasting, mobile telephones, video phones, and television. It would turn out to be a losing battle.
The Living Age, August 7, 1920, pages 346-348:
[Land and Water]
BY A. P. HERBERT
THE Gloomy Dean has been severely taken to task for his lecture on the 'Idea of Progress'; and I have no doubt that the man is as wicked as they say; but if he meant that progress seems to be a process of making life more and more unpleasant, I am inclined to agree with him. If that was his real text, and if Madame Melba had done her Wireless Sing before he delivered his lecture, it would have been a good illustration of his melancholy theme. Madame Melba's Wireless Sing--apart from the fact that, like all other scientific achievements of modern times, it was just a great big advertisement for Lord Northcliffe--seems to me to be a deplorable affair. It is one more nail in the coffin of privacy and quietude. It is one step further towards universal crossness, lunacy, and indigestion. For it is not Bolshevism, but Progress, that will destroy the world; we shall simply fizzle out in the end from sheer irritation and nervous strain under the burden of scientific innovations arranged by the Daily Mail.
Think of the mechanical or scientific additions to the apparatus of life which have made life most hideous in the past few years and sapped most surely at our national character. Ha! I have heard it said that the decay of the British Empire will be dated by history from the introduction of the field telephone, because from that date the sturdy independent Public School administrator at Bimaboom no longer shot the rebel tribesmen at sight, but rang up some superior for instructions instead, while the tribesmen departed intact. This is very true. And that baneful tendency was aggravated by the arrival of the typewriter, after which, whatever instructions the superior officer gave, he felt bound to have six copies made of them and send them off to several other superiors, each of whom had six more copies made of them.
All this, I say, is sadly true. People fondly thought the war was a marvel of organization because everybody except the sentry had a telephone and everybody but the Company Cook had a typewriter. The truth is, of course, that the war would have ended in 1914 if there had been no typewriters and no telephones; very likely it would never have begun. Nobody could take the simplest action without first ringing up four or five other people, and nobody could utter or write the simplest observation without having six copies made of it, and either sending them off in all directions till they began to clog the channels of transport, or simply piling them up at the office till the files began to burst and the rooms began to overflow, and it was necessary to ask for more buildings to keep the copies in and more staff to keep them dusted. If you subtract the amount of time that was wasted in this way from the total duration of the war you will see that I am right in saying that the war would have ended in 1914. It works out at about November 29th.
Then there is the aeroplane. Where flight is concerned I confess that I am an obstructionist, a reactionary, a dirty Tory. I hate aeroplanes. I loathe the very word flight. Every bird I see reminds me of an aeroplane and makes me shudder. Almost the only satisfactory feature of the Peace is that there are fewer aeroplanes about. In the war it was terrible; wherever one went, wherever one looked, one heard aeroplanes, one saw airmen buzzing and booming, both of them. And yet people blame the government for not encouraging 'civil aviation.'
Civil aviation, when properly developed on modern commercial lines, will be a thousand times worse. There will be no peace at all. It will be no good owning a 'quiet' house; it will be no good knowing a quiet wood; it will be no good fleeing for rest to one's favorite haunt in the country; it will be no good climbing to the top of a high mountain. Wherever one goes one will hear the horrible booming and buzzing; there will be no quiet place anywhere. Motorists motor now along the tops of the South Downs (curse them!). Aviators will aviate over the tops of the Alps (damn them!). And even if they invent a silent aeroplane one will still see the horrible things. I hope nobody still pretends that an aeroplane is beautiful. People used to pretend that. I hope they see now that it is an ugly, bony, displeasing object. It is only beautiful when the sun is shining, and it is about two miles up and it is almost totally obscured by shrapnel bursts or clouds, and you can't hear it. It is about as beautiful as a motor-bicycle, and far less useful.
And now we have this wireless menace. Wireless telegraphy was tedious enough; as it is, whenever one commits the tiniest murder one is hounded down and arrested by wireless in the s.s. Argantic. But wireless telephony seems to me to spell the end of civilization. There are still villages where one cannot be pursued on the telephone; and there are still a few ships without wireless; and there are still a few woods thick enough to hide one from the aeroplanes; but I can think of no way to escape the wireless telephonist. One can, of course, refuse to be a subscriber oneself, but wherever one goes there will always be some officious person who will willingly 'oblige' by taking a message and all the rest of it. The gamekeeper and the square-leg umpire and every porter will have a set, even the bathing machine attendant. There will be no escape.
And I cannot get enthusiastic about this Wireless Singing. It is true, of course, that when a prima-donna is singing one would usually enjoy it more if one could not see her; but that can be arranged by having a screen on the stage, without making her go 1000 miles away. Yet there is an awful fascination in that kind of thing. I was in a hospital once which had a theatrical electrophone at the head of each bed. It was horrible. One simply had to listen. It was very uncomfortable, and it made one's ears sore, and one's pipe kept going out, and one was never sure whether it was Mr. George Robey or Mr. Gerald du Maurier talking. Yet one listened. On Sunday mornings we were switched on to a church in Soho, and one even listened to that.
But even that is not the worst. When they have mastered the transmission of sound by wireless they will begin on the transmission of sight. Then, of course, you will actually see the face of the man who rings up and asks you if you are the Midland Railway or the Coliseum; then it will be no good saying that your wife is in bed because the bore will see your wife sitting behind you in the armchair. And then, instead of only hearing, and reading, and feeling Lord Northcliffe on every hand, one will see Northcliffe wherever one goes. Pictures of Lord Northcliffe will be flashed by wireless on the sky. The moon will carry a permanent portrait of Lord Northcliffe. All the stars will be little miniatures of Lord Northcliffe at various ages. The whole firmament will be one vast advertisement of Lord Northcliffe. . . .
I agree with the Dean.