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Original Issue


The author decries a future in which television replaces the camaraderie of the crowd

Every time I make a telephone call that is answered by a mechanical voice instructing me to "punch one for ticket information" or "punch two for marketing" and so on, I have the eerie sensation of being transported, as if in a science-fiction novel, to some remote time in the future. I know better, of course, for I am inescapably in the here and now, a place I find less congenial with each such scientific advance. Wouldn't it be nice, I ask myself after one of these telephonic encounters with talking robots, if I could dial a number someday and actually talk to a living person? I stress the word "dial" because the two phones in my residence are not only attached anachronistically to cords, but also have what the mechanical voices tell me are "rotary dials," not keypads, which most of these implements that were manufactured after 1925, or so, apparently feature. And as I have lately discovered, it is almost impossible to call anyone on a rotary phone without being subjected to the full robotic litany before a usually irritable human "information operator" takes over.

In fact, my home is beginning more and more to take on the appearance of a museum, stocked as it is with such antiques as tabletop radios, typewriters and typing paper, an actual phonograph that plays 78's, and a television set with only a 19-inch screen. Where, for heaven's sake, are the home computers, the word processors, the cellular push-button phones, the CD players, the fax machines? How can anyone live in such primitive squalor?

"Happily," I reply, cackling like Lionel Barrymore as Dr. Gillespie.

But I am here not to defend my own resolute fuddy-duddyism, but rather to explore the consequences of this technological onslaught on our lives, particularly our sporting lives, in the fast-approaching 21st century. We Americans are, with few exceptions (note the foregoing), passionate believers in the future and the supposedly life-enhancing gadgetry with which it will surely bless us. Naturally, there is always some attendant fear of what all the new stuff will do to our existing institutions. But we've learned from the past that many of these fears are unfounded: Weren't motion pictures, particularly the talkies, supposed to do away with the legitimate theater? Well, all they really did was to kill vaudeville, which stayed dead only long enough for television to revive it. The legitimate theater, if anything, changed for the better, abandoning much of its froth to the movies while exploring more serious themes. Radio was perceived as a triple threat, menacing the stage, newspapers and sports. What it in fact did was give jobs to unemployed vaudevillians and stage actors, while making fortunes for record producers and advertising agencies. And, not incidentally, while helping to introduce a golden age of sport, the era of Babe Ruth, Red Grange, Jack Dempsey and Bill Tilden.

Major league baseball executives were at first terrified of radio, convinced as they were that it was going to keep people out of their ballparks. Games that were broadcast would be poorly attended, or so the argument went. The executives were, as usual, wrong. The more enlightened among them, particularly Larry MacPhail in his years with the Brooklyn Dodgers, realized that radio was a vital public relations tool. It remains so today, even with television.

Ah, yes, television. It was supposed to finish off radio and just about every other form of mass entertainment, especially spectator sports. It was one thing to hear a game on the radio, the owners lamented, quite another to see it "live" on TV. In truth, TV did pretty much KO the small fight clubs in the 1950s, but it also created a much larger audience for boxing, one that such master performers as Muhammad Ali wisely embraced. Television was the making of professional football, exposing it to the masses and turning it into the fastest-growing sport of the '60s and '70s, while transforming it into a media monster.

The smarter baseball owners discovered, as they had with radio, that television would attract new fans, not discourage them. In fact, some major league teams now televise virtually all of their games. And baseball has drawn larger crowds in the past five years than at any time in its history.

So why worry about what the future may bring, particularly since it already seems to be here? The theater remains a fabulous invalid. Movies seem to be surviving the competition of home videos. Radio has its music, news, sports, weather and interminable talk shows. And people are going to sporting events in record numbers. And all this is happening while American houses are being packed to the ceiling with technological marvels.

And yet, as technology marches relentlessly forward, an insidious process may be taking place in the all-but-forgotten realm of human relations. "There is an accretion of little things," says Philip Zimbardo, a professor of psychology at Stanford University who has specialized in "the influence of social situations on behavior."

The electronic home entertainment centers, with their cable television, CD players, video games and computers, are "in a sense bringing the world to you," says Zimbardo. "Why go to the ballpark or the symphony? Why fight the traffic and the crowds? Why deal with all the inconvenience when your wall television set can bring you the game, plus instant replay? These electronic gadgets make other people irrelevant to you. You don't need people for entertainment. All of this technology is in the name of efficiency. Humans, after all, are inefficient compared with machines. These devices—the computers, the voice mail—buy you time away from people. They are all designed so you don't waste time. They work to isolate you from human contact. Video games are taking the place of playing outdoors for children. You never see kids playing in the streets anymore. What I think we're seeing is a minimizing, a short-circuiting of human relations. It takes practice to be comfortable and effective with other people. Our gadgetry is taking that away from us."

Why, Zimbardo asks, do office workers sitting less than 10 feet from each other choose to communicate by computer instead of speaking? Even the robot telephone operators have a voice, though one scarcely recognizable as human. For that matter, the home computer may well eliminate the office altogether. Who needs it? Voice mail has replaced the telephone operator and the secretary. Computers can gather information faster than any human researcher or reference librarian. The middleman in office life is being snuffed out.

And what of office social life? Where now are the bull sessions by the water cooler? The drinks after work? After a day at the old computer, today's worker goes home to check his electronic answering service, watch his television or listen to his CDs, all in privacy. And with the new home fitness equipment, he doesn't even need to leave the house to exercise. Is the health club, another social center, on the way out?

Even our modern stadiums are beginning to look more like home entertainment centers. They, too, have their powerful sound systems and television screens. "Television has come to define reality," Zimbardo says. "You can go to a ball game now and see people watching their little Sonys, as if to validate what is happening on the field before them. That little screen and the one on the scoreboard become more real for the fan than the athletes he is watching." There is isolation even in a crowd.

At clinics he has conducted on shyness, Zimbardo has observed an increased social ineptitude among "young, intelligent, affluent men whose work is in technology. They are very successful in dealing with their machines, but they don't know how to start a conversation, don't know how to make friends, don't know how to entertain a date. They are like travelers in a foreign country who don't know the language."

At its worst, this sort of social isolation can lead to both physical and mental illness, even to suicidal and homicidal acts. Most serial killers, Zimbardo points out, are loners. "It's odd," he says, "but the worst thing you can do to somebody in prison is put him in solitary confinement. Now we seem to have an entire portion of the population willingly committing itself to solitary confinement. The sad thing is that these people seem to be liking it. What they've really done is break the bond with the rest of us. They are saying, 'Look, I'm happy. I have all this stuff. My CDs, my video games. Leave me alone.' "

Some academicians do not share such a bleak look into the electronic future. "The history of television has been one long bum rap," says Neil J. Smelser, chairman of the sociology department at the University of California, "when, in fact, watching television can be a social occasion. In watching a sports event with friends, for example, you create your own crowd." And the home computer may actually enhance family life, Smelser says, because the home itself becomes the workplace. "It will introduce a new kind of family dynamic. We may, in fact, have to invent barriers to protect the workplace from family intrusion." The new technology will allow us much more "flexibility of time" than we had in the old nine-to-five days, says Smelser. And we'll still get out of the house to go to a ball game or the movies.

"In 1941, when I was 11 and living in the little town of Kahoka, Missouri," Smelser recalls, "our summer entertainment was sitting outdoors, listening to the Cardinals on the radio. And yet, we still regarded driving down to St. Louis on a Sunday for a doubleheader as a big event. Even now, I'd go to every Cal game even if they were all televised. No, there is a culture of conviviality that just won't go away."

Zimbardo would agree in part, but he cautions, "as the technological revolution expands and its things become better and cheaper and therefore more accessible to younger and younger people, the purists who say you actually have to be there at a game will become fewer and fewer."

The fact is, as any restaurateur or bartender will tell you, people just aren't going out that much anymore. Why leave the house when everything you need for work and amusement is but a push button away? That "culture of conviviality" seems to me to be in real danger of extinction as we move into the brave new world of high tech. Perhaps, as Zimbardo suggests, we should start counting the hours in a week that we actually spend in the company of other humans—or, in the dreadful vernacular of the computer, "interfacing" with them. Will the day come when the only times people get together in any significant numbers are at group therapy sessions in stress rehabilitation centers?

It is difficult to envision an America without crowds, without noisy fans at the ballpark, cheering throngs at stadiums and arenas, appreciative audiences at the theater and the music hall. Difficult, did I say? No, it's unthinkable.

Still, even now we are witnessing some of the side effects of our self-imposed isolation. Professional boxing no longer draws the tremendous crowds of its Dempsey-Tunney. Louis-Conn heydays. It is now strictly a studio sport, the matches staged before small live audiences and large numbers of pay-per-view cable television viewers. You don't watch fights in teeming arenas anymore; you watch them at home. In a few years, only a few of us fogies will be able to recall the electric tension in a buzzing arena that preceded a heavyweight championship bout. That shared moment of anticipation was often more thrilling than the fight itself. And boxing is merely showing the way into this dehumanized future, since other major sports are busily examining their pay-per-view options.

There is yet another side effect worth examining here. Maybe there never was anything quite so civilized as crowd etiquette, but if there was, we've lost it. It's as if we've completely forgotten how to behave en masse. Too many movie patrons now chatter annoyingly through even the main feature, heedless of those around them, behaving as if they were home in front of their television sets. And, as we've seen during this past baseball season, crowds at the ballpark are no longer content merely to suggest that performing athletes are "a bunch of bums"; they verbally flay them with pointed references to their sex lives and drinking habits. It's small wonder that the thin-skinned plutocrats who now play baseball are responding in kind. It should also come as no surprise that a generation of fans accustomed to watching games on the tube should regard the players as something less vulnerable than flesh and blood. Seen on TV, they are merely part of the entertainment parade. Besides, a person can say anything he wants at home.

Is this then what we can expect of a crowd-free America? Will we, on those rare occasions when we are all together in one place, behave even more abominably than we do now? All the more reason to stay home, we will probably conclude. And by doing that, we will have deprived ourselves of what we once considered the very spice of life—variety.

These are times when you've got to hold back the future before it runs right over you. I know I'm going to eliminate at least some of the irritation in my life by hanging up on every robot I hear at the other end of my phone line. "I have an important message for you...please hold...." Click! "To reach our ticket office, please punch two...." Click! It's a start, anyway.









We may deprive ourselves...

...of the spice of life