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Tuesday, January 3, 2017

The Perversity of Things: review #4 of X: Gernsback and the First Amendment

Continuing with my review (#4 of X) of The Perversity of Things: Hugo Gernsback on Media, Tinkering, and Scientifiction, edited by Grant Wythoff (University of Minnesota Press, 2016),  this time focusing on pages 26-28 of Wythoff's 59-page Introduction to the 359-page volume, because it tells us that Gernsback was a staunch opponent of government regulation of the nascent radio medium.

So I now have a third area of strong agreement with Gernsback and his work, joining science fiction and media theory: Gernsback not only understood the evolution of media, but got that we should not let the ham-handed government and its penchant for regulations get in the way of that.

Had I known that, I certainly would have mentioned Gernsback in my Flouting of the First Amendment 2005 keynote address - a central part of which is that the Federal Communications Act of 1934 and the FCC it created was a hindrance not a help to the evolution of broadcasting, and violated the First Amendment.  Wythoff again deserves credit for bringing Gernsback into this continuing controversy about how much if any government regulation of media is helpful and constitutional as we move further in the 21st century.

But Wythoff and I don't agree on everything regarding this issue.  He notes on page 27 that Gernback's "arguments against hasty legislation ... are very much reminiscent of advocates for net neutrality".   But net neutrality, though laudable as an ideal, is usually advocated as a government regulation - in other words, an example of the very kind of government meddling in the evolution of media that Gernsback was so eloquently and knowledgeably against. Wythoff is no doubt right that Gernsback the tinkerer would have been no fan at all of today's huge media corporations, but Gernback's often repeated contempt for and fear of government intervention in media development would have made him even less a fan of an FCC induced net neutrality as a way of limiting corporate power.  (My Why I Oppose Net Neutrality summarizes my opposition, pre-Gernsback and Wythoff.)

I would add here that underlying my and Gernsback's opposition to government regulation is not only an understanding of media evolution, but an optimism that this evolution by and large leads to good and better things.   This optimistic outlook, as Wythoff makes clear and I mentioned in previous reviews of The Perversity of Things, is also the basis of Gernsback's hopeful science fiction - in the tradition of Jules Verne, contradicted by the dystopian science fiction of Aldous Huxley and George Orwell, furthered in cyberpunk which was and is specifically scathing about media evolution, in the latter part of the 20th century and the present (and, being a not 100% Gersnbackian, I've occasionally written a little of, I'll admit).

Wythoff goes on to describe the McLuhanesque "global village" that Gernsbach's "new minted citizens of the ether" (Wythoff's apt term) comprised - a development which didn't quite turn out the way Gernsback intended and predicted (and not just because of government interference), which I'll look at it my next review.

See alsoThe Perversity of Things: review #1 of X: Gernsback as Philosopher of Technology ... #2 of X: Learning by Doing ... #3 of X: The Evolution of Media ... #5 of X: Amateurs vs. Corporations ... #6 of X: Thought Experiments and Toys ... #7 of X: The Invention of Invention, and the Advent of Science Fiction ... #8 of X: Definitions and Fake News


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