The Information Revolution: Breakthrough or Breakdown – Robert W. Sarnoff, President of RCA – Commonwealth Club Of California – September 26, 1969 – Gordon Skene Sound Collection –
The Information Revolution – Put in context 1969 – some 51 years ago, the age of the Computer, the Internet, even Satellite and cable communications were in their infancy – in some cases, a far off and somewhat far-fetched dream. The notion of a personal computer wasn’t even heard of. The Internet was strictly intended to be for the use of disseminating information and hard data between institutions. We had only landed a man on the Moon two months earlier. The notion of Satellites being used for mass communication was a far off goal destined for the 70s.
All of the things The Information Revolution promised were intended to be used as an educational tool – it never occurred to us in a million years that the heady and optimistic vision of an enlightened society would instead become overwhelmed by the likes of Tik-Tok, YouTube and Facebook. Even a recent technological advance, Zoom, was the stuff of Science Fiction. We dreamed of fingertip access while taking two buses to get to the library – we thought the notion of being able to carry your phone around in your back pocket was something you only read about in comic books – the only way you were ever going to communicate with another person on the phone was either where you lived or on a payphone – and only if you had enough dimes and quarters to do that.
Color Television was slowly coming into the American home; black and white was still the norm – cable TV was something being considered for TV owners who lived in remote areas where an antenna wasn’t sufficient. HBO, Netflix and Sling were not even on the table. The closest it came in the 1960s was a proposal to use PayTV; a box that unscrambled a signal where you could get movies commercial free – but legislation to allow that to happen, even in Los Angeles was vehemently voted down.
In 1969 there were still doubts about the validity and the realized possibilities of an Information Revolution. This episode of the weekly radio program The Commonwealth Club of California, had as a guest, Robert W. Sarnoff, President of RCA – and his assessment was cautious. Still very much in the optimistic realm of things – the practicalities were only slowly evolving and taking shape.
What is interesting about this episode is the comparative lack of interest on the parts of the audience who, rather than ask about the possibilities, were more concerned with Program content – news coverage of Vietnam – cigarette advertising – violence on TV. It never occurred to anyone in the audience at the time that the seemingly innocuous brainchild of engineers and scientists would be relegated to Instagram and Citizen Journalists – where everyone in an audience of several thousand would have camera/phones trained on the center of attraction, taking the place of reality and tactile encounters.
I don’t think anyone would have considered the current state of affairs when discussing the possibilities some 51 years ago. It’s astonishing how far we’ve come – and equally astonishing how far we’ve not come since this lecture first aired.
As you no doubt missed it the first time around, or found it too abstract to realistically consider at the time, here is a reminder of where we were when we discussed the future and what happened as a result. I cannot imagine the world fifty-one years from today. And maybe that’s how the audience at The Commonwealth Club felt as they stirred post-lunch cups of coffee while listening to Robert W. Sarnoff on September 26, 1969.
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