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The imperiled castle

The American home once stood isolated from the world outside, snug amid the storms of winter and cut off from the buzz and confusion of the market place. In the mind's eye I see it standing at the center of a wide stillness. What went on within was strictly private, and external occurrences stopped at its clapboard walls. But that image fades in the modern times. Home becomes a place penetrated by a thousand voices, interlaced with a vast system of communications; and the home-owner feels powerless to resist these intrusions.

It is a bit scary, when you think of it, that the innermost room should be full of waves carrying the huge hubhub of commercial broadcasting. One can turn off the radio or television, yet I sometimes wonder whether some residue of these voices and images does not continue to enter one's head. When my three boys were growing up we did not, for a while, have a television set. My wife would occasionally express the fear that our offspring might feel deprived. Yet in fact they seemed to know everything that was passing through the air-waves -- the latest jokes, the current fads and transient heroes.

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"Don't worry," I said to my wife. "These children don't need television sets. They seem to have been born with built-in electronic equipment permitting them to receive directly everything that is broadcast." My wife was not entirely convinced. Yet with me the fancy has persisted that somehow or other everything that is injected into the once silent air has an impact upon the modern brain. "The isle," as Caliban said, "is full of noises." We hear them in spite of ourselves, nor are they always of the sort that "give delight and hurt not."

Coming down to a more realistic plane, I am disturbed by the degree to which our privacy is invaded by telephone calls we don't want to receive and by mail that ought never to have been sent. The post, which was once a channel for private correspondence -- how eagerly we picked up a letter, with what rapidly glancing eyes we deciphered its meaning! -- is now given over largely to "junk mail." As for the telephone line, the summary ring it looses is as apt to be a recorded voice attempting to sell us something, as the familiar accents of a friend.

Increasing numbers of telephone subscribers take pains to see that their name and number shall not be available. A recent report of the Rand Corporation indicates that in 1977 as many as 28 percent of its clientele and requested and received private listings. What are they protecting themselves against? The lewd or mischievous caller in some cases; more often against the deluge of unwanted calls from salesmen of one kind or another. The marvels of computer logic are being brought into play, combined with automatic dialing and pre-recorded messages. Again according to Rand, 7 million unsolicited telephone calls are made each business day, or about 2 billionm annually.

If tape is a weapon used for the offense, it is also increasingly relied on for defensive tactics. I call a friend, and if he is out, I get his voice informing me that he will be back very shortly, meanwhile will I please state my message. "Dear friend," I feel inclined to say, "I wanted to talk to youm and not to this infernal machine. As for my message, perhaps it isn't so important after all." Thus one evil encourages another, and in the end communication breaks down altogether.

I understand the telephone company is considering the possibility of having telephone calls of different kinds announced by a different tone or sound. As the result of further technological development, a loud bell will ring to announce an emergency, and a very faint tinkle herald the commercial solicitation. Perhaps the call of an acquaintance will evoke musical numbers. That might be to the good, a genuinely humane application of science. But even the faint tinkle of the would-be salesman can disturb a man lost in thought, as the din carried by the airwaves, in some way we know not of, may be driving us all beside ourselves.


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