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Chapter 35: Page / Screen 1945-2000

In the aftermath of World War II, a nihilist philosophy called existentialism weighed like a wet blanket on the spirit of depressed intellectuals. The war had exposed a terrible truth about human nature and even the most sanguine were forced to admit that education and cultural sophistication were no guarantee against barbarity. Earlier national armies had more or less subscribed to the articles of the Geneva Convention. Not since the religious wars of the sixteenth century had combatants indulged in depravities like those perpetrated by the "civilized" Axis powers. World War II was a firestorm for modern civilization, but the conflict also marked the beginning of yet another massive shift in global consciousness. The combining of two "feminine" influences, photography and electromagnetism, was chiefly responsible for this change. In 1939, Philo T. Farnsworth invented television. After the war ended, television spread rapidly-literally house to house. One after another, living rooms were illuminated by the glow of fuzzy electronic pictures. The tube was an overnight sensation, and soon the amount of time people spent watching images flit on and off the front of the glowing box began to surpass the amount of time people spent reading linear rows of black letters. Comprehending television required an entirely different hemispheric strategy than that used in reading. Viewers called forth their pattern-recognition skills to decipher the screen's low-definition flickering mosaic mesh. The retina's cones need bright light to scan a static page of print, but television brings the eye's rods into play. They see best in dim surroundings and can detect the slightest movements. As people watched more and more television, the supremacy of the left hemisphere dimmed as the right's use increased. For 750,000 years, families had gathered around lit hearths whose flames supplied warmth, illuminated darkness, encouraged camaraderie, and encouraged storytelling. Campfires had been an essential ingredient for the evolution of oral epics. In 1950, a new kind of fire replaced the hearth; and it encouraged a different set of social qualities.

Previously, alphabetic print had exploded Western culture into millions of hard-edged shards of individualistic shrapnel. Both reading and writing are, in most cases, solitary endeavors. Television abruptly reversed the process, and the centripetal implosion not only pulled together individual families but also began to enmesh the entire human community into what McLuhan called "one vast electronic global village." Television was so startlingly original that many other adjustments in perception were necessary for the brain to make sense of it.
Chapter 35: Page / Screen 1945-2000

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