Wednesday, February 16, 2011

The Influence of Media on Society in The Time Machine

The First Time Traveller - Edison & the Phonograph
tags: media theory, technology & war, manipulation of media, socialism vs. capitalism vs. communism, McCarthyism

“From around 1880 to the outbreak of World War I, a series of sweeping changed in technology and culture created distinctive new modes of thinking about and experiencing time and space.” (Kern 1)

In 1877, Edison invented the phonograph, and in doing so, changed the history not only of communications and media, but also the history of consciousness itself. Suddenly for the first time, a voice could be recorded at one point in time and played back in a completely different time. Through the phonograph, and the recording of sound, even the dead could speak, and many during the time period wrote of the uncanny sensation of hearing voices from beyond the grave. An entirely new conception of time came about as the phonograph (and soon after, in 1887, the gramophone) allowed people to preserve a moment in time and space, and bring that moment back later on. In some ways then, Edison was the first Time Traveller – the first inventor able to take people into the future.

 It’s perhaps no surprise then that by 1895, H. G. Wells’ Time Traveller asks his audience (as Cooper notes, both the diegetic audience of his friends, and the extra-diegetic audience of the reader) to reconsider the very nature of time itself, and to reexamine the question of whether human beings are truly locked in a specific time –humans had already achieved the ability to travel to the future via the recorded sound of their voices!

Thus while The Time Machine explores the potential negative consequences of the quick growth of industrialization and capitalism, it is simultaneously very much itself a reflection of the triumph of new achievements in media and technology, simply by virtue of the premise of the story. This becomes significant in relation to Kai’s point that the 1960 adaptation of the novel explores the theme of “the appropriating of advancing technology for military purposes”.

The irony of this observation is that in media theory, there is a school of thought, best expressed in the work of German media theorist Friedrich Kittler, that would argue the complete opposite – that it is war itself which drives technology forward, and that uses of new forms of media as forms of entertainment are secondary uses for what is essentially military apparatus. This mentality seems to be echoed (or rather foreshadowed, as Kittler was born in 1943) within the pages of The Time Machine:

“What… is the cause of human intelligence and vigour? Hardship and freedom: conditions under which the active, strong, and subtle survive, and the weaker go to the wall…For countless years I judged there had been no danger of war or solitary violence…For such a life, what we should call the weak are as well equipped as the strong, are indeed no longer weak… This has ever been the fate of energy in security; it takes to art and to eroticism, and then come languor and decay.” (39-41)

The Time Traveller seems to suggest that without the hardship of war, there is no cause for the growth of technology in any form – whether for purposes of war or otherwise. Indeed, similarly to Kittler, he seems to suggest that art itself is only of secondary value as an outlet for human energy. While the 1960 film seems to portray a very negative view of technology, as many, including Kai, have pointed out, it seems to be in stark contrast to the messages about the advancement of technology that are portrayed in the book.
"Pre-McCarthy" McCarthyism - The cover of a 1947 propaganda comic book

Rhiannon and Kai have observed how such attitudes toward technology in 1960 were likely the result of the influence of the Cold War, which also highlights another strange incongruity between the novel and the film – as many have pointed out, Wells was a staunch socialist and the novel is itself an exploration of the potential dangers of a capitalist society. On the other flipside is the film, the product of not only a highly pro-capitalist society, but a society that is still recovering from the scares of McCarthyism and the Hollywood Blacklist. 

Senator Joseph McCarthy
The story of Joseph McCarthy’s influence on the nation and his subsequent undermining by television show host Edward R. Murrow is itself is a lesson in the way the mass media had gained full sway over the American public. The scene in the film when the Eloi walk as if hypnotized toward the sound of the “All Clear” is certainly a commentary on the way people had been trained to hide from bombs when the government told them to hide from bombs without a second thought. But it is also a reminder of the way in which people can be so easily swayed and manipulated by the mass media – to the point where they might even abandon their friends. This is what the Eloi seems to allude to when he comments, “They never come back. Nobody can bring them back”, in response to the Time Traveller’s questioning as to where the others had gone and why no one is trying to save them. In the period of McCarthyism, many careers were instantaneously destroyed with unsubstantiated accusations, as people throughout Hollywood irrationally abandoned some of the greatest talent in the industry traitors because a man with access to the radio or television declared them to be traitors.

Thus while the novel The Time Machine is itself an advocate for the advancements of technology, the film The Time Machine offers a cautionary tale not only about the potential destruction of technology, but the danger of manipulation presented by new forms of media, themselves a product of the technology that the novel is an advocate for. 
The Hollywood Ten

But ultimately, this is a socialist text being interpreted by an industry with a strongly capitalist worldview. Many have pointed out the many differences this creates between the film and the text, but what I am curious about is – does the dichotomy create inconsistencies within the film itself?

The Kern quote above is the opening sentence of the introduction to Stephen Kern’s book, The Culture of Time and Space: 1880-1918, which is about the way new electronic inventions during the period changed the way people conceived of time and space. We were given an excerpt of the book to read in GER 307, which is about German acoustic culture, and I’ve uploaded it here - - in case you desire to read it, though I realize it’s extra reading that no one might want to read. I haven’t read the entire book myself, but much of the discussion about sound below is from the GER 307 class session for which we read the excerpt I’m giving you.

My edition of The Time Machine: Wells, H. G. The Time Machine. New York: Penguin, 2010. Print.

All photos are courtesy of Wikipedia.


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