April 21 2012

Titanic Times

By The Philosophy Channel Editorial Staff

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For Stephen Kern, writing in his book The Culture of Time & Space 1880 – 1918, the period between “1880 to the outbreak of World War I a series of sweeping changes in technology and culture created distinctive new modes of thinking about and experiencing time and space. Technological innovations including the telephone, wireless telegraph, x-ray, cinema, bicycle, automobile, and airplane established the material foundation for this reorientation.”

Few fields of study remained untouched – physics, psychology, art, drama, poetry, literature, and cinema – coupled to associated “cultural developments such as the stream-of-consciousness novel, psychoanalysis, Cubism, and the theory of relativity shaped consciousness directly. The result was a transformation of the dimensions of life and thought.” Our notions of time and space had been annihilated, “creating what one later historian characterized as an age of simultaneity.”

This “new sense of simultaneity meant that an experience such as speaking to another person, formerly limited to communication between persons in the same place, could, as a consequence of the new telephones, include instantaneous conversations between persons separated by vast distances. Thus the experience of the present as here and now for conversations was expanded spatially to include exchanges with others at a great distance and was expanded temporally by packing into the present moment the back-and-forth communications that would have taken much longer to carry out before telephones were introduced.”

As we recall the recent centennial anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic, that disaster became “a simultaneous drama played out on the North Atlantic as its wireless distress calls filled the skies. The actual sinking was witnessed visually by hundreds of survivors who made it into the lifeboats; in a sense it was also witnessed electronically by telegraph operators in numerous ships at sea and by wireless operators in telegraph and newspaper offices across North America and even Europe, where messages were sent by Atlantic cable.”

On April 21, 1912, one hundred years ago, to the day, The New York Times wrote: “Night and day all the year round the millions upon the earth and the thousands upon the sea now reach out and grasp the thin air and use it as a thing more potent for human aid than any strand of wire or cable that was ever spun or woven. Last week 745 [sic] human lives were saved from perishing by the wireless. But for the almost magic use of the air the Titanic tragedy would have been shrouded in the secrecy that not so long ago was the power of the sea… Few New Yorkers realize that all through the roar of the big city there are constantly speeding messages between people separated by vast distances, and that over housetops and even through walls of buildings and in the very air one breathes are words written by electricity.”

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