Curmudgeon at Large: On The Edge of a New Era

Posted on by Herschell Gordon Lewis

We in our sacred world of force-communication don’t keep time on a year-by-year basis, the way more conventional historians do.

As I see it, we’re in the “Fourth Age.” Here’s the chronology:

The First Age began in prehistoric times and continued for centuries – cavemen drawing on grotto walls … the Dead Sea Scrolls … monks tortuously copying manuscripts a previous generation of monks had copied.

The world of communication began as one-to-one, and we’ve been trying to replicate that effect artificially ever since … minus the limitation of actually being just one to another one.

The First Age ended somewhere around the year 1439, when a guy named Johann Gutenberg started the Second Age.

Gutenberg’s invention of movable type caused an explosion in communication, and his Age lasted almost five hundred years. Newspapers and magazines couldn’t have existed as early as they did if Gutenberg, frustrated with hand-copying, hadn’t decided there’s an easier way to publish multiple copies of a book.

Typefaces multiplied. Some of the early faces, such as Garamond, dating from the 1540s, still are popular today.

The Second Age came to full flower in 1884 when Ottmar Mergenthaler, born in Germany and transplanted to the United States, invented a goofy-looking machine called the linotype. Suddenly typesetting became fast and easy. (Until the linotype, no newspaper in the United States had more than eight pages. The way newspaper advertising is disappearing, those days may come again.)

Publishing moguls such as William Randolph Hearst flourished to an extent that wouldn’t have been possible without Mergenthaler. Newspaper stories occasionally had “etaion shurdlu” suddenly appearing, those being the characters on the left edge of the linotype, where operators accidentally rested their hand and forgot to remove the hot lead stick they’d included.

The Third Age began at the turn of the twentieth century, when two inventors, Guglielmo Marconi and Nikola Tesla, perfected wireless transmission. Communication again sped up at warp-speed. The first commercial radio station, KDKA Pittsburgh, went on the air in 1920. A fellow named Philo Farnsworth is generally credited with inventing television, in 1927. At the New York World’s Fair in 1939, RCA demonstrated the medium, which began semi-regular transmission in 1941 but didn’t really become commercially operative until after World War II, when families would pay 25 cents an hour to watch wrestling on a ten-inch rented TV set.

And the Fourth Age? It stems from the 1980s, when the Internet made possible one-to-one marketing on a mass basis. (Still seems like an oxymoron, doesn’t it?) What an explosion! Google, without which we’d be informational cripples, was incorporated less than 11 years ago.

With the maturation of each Age, the dominant medium changed, without totally eliminating the others. People still copy by hand today. Publications still exist, and books sell by the billions. Broadcast stations are loaded – too loaded, most people complain – with commercials, and cable stations offer a fare to suit every taste or lack of taste.
Now, is a Fifth Age possible?

I had wondered, not on an “if” basis but on a “when” basis, since seeing a movie in which Keanu Reeves, type-cast as a sort of android with a USB-plug in his head, became an information-machine. The question wasn’t why the studio hired Keanu Reeves instead of an actor; it was whether brain-to-brain communication could be a fact.
Oh, for years we’ve heard about Russian experimentation with extra-sensory perception, but such stories were and may still be folklore. What wasn’t folklore was a story in Business Week about a company named Emotiv, an experimenter in “electroencephalography.” Here’s someone with sensors on his head. The sensors read the brain’s faint electrical signals, and the wearer can change the image on a computer monitor just by thinking. Huh?

I read the article twice, wondering : Fact or fancy? Fact. Emotiv already is selling the first-generation gadget, Epoc, for about $300. At last year’s Game Developers Conference in San Francisco, an Emotiv demonstrator let selected visitors play a game in which the player can rebuild Stonehenge. That Fifth Age, one we might have thought was another hundred years in the future, is knocking at our communicative door.

Fit me out with some fresh brain waves and I’ll answer the knock.

Herschell Gordon Lewis is the author of 31 books, including the recently-published “Creative Rules for the 21st Century.” Among his other books are “Hot Appeals or Burnt Offerings,” the curmudgeonly-titled “Asinine Advertising,” the third edition of “On the Art of Writing Copy,” “Open Me Now,” “Marketing Mayhem” and “Effective E-Mail Marketing.”

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