Monday, March 19, 2007

Filling the ether

Something new on the island this year. A half-dozen tall cell phone towers strung out along the Queen's Highway. A sure sign, I suppose, that our sweet little island has embraced the world beyond.

I have mixed feelings about this, of course. I'm glad for my island neighbors, who have as much right to jabber inconsequently into a cell phone as anyone else. But along with cell phones comes all the rest of garbage culture -- Anna Nicole Smith and Howard Stern are big news here -- winging on the ether, bathing the island in a ceaseless slop of American-pop-culture-saturated electromagnetic waves.

Already islanders are asking themselves if they really want to let this laid-back jewel of sand in a turquoise sea become just another neighborhood of Florida. The answer, apparently (sadly), is yes.

I'm just finished reading Erik Larson's Thunderstruck, which is about -- among other things -- Guglielmo Marconi's experiments with wireless telegraphy. The scrappy Italian showed that electromagnetic waves could reach right around the curvature of the Earth. Marconi's imagination raced ahead of most of his contemporaries, but even he could not have imagined the planet wrapped in its 21st-century cocoon of invisible radiations, the sublime and the ridiculous -- the music of Mozart, the BBC World Service, Anna Nicole's funeral live, the postings on this blog -- a Noosphere of all that is glorious and absurd of human culture.

Some years ago, at the MIT Museum, I saw replicas of the apparatus with which Heinrich Hertz demonstrated (in 1886) the existence of electromagnetic waves. The first transmitter and receiver had a basement-workshop simplicity about them -- brass, wood, wire, string, and sealing wax -- hand-crafted, handsomely varnished, polished to an impressive shine. Such a simple beginning for the day when the very space in which we live and move and have our being would invisibly shimmer with a thousand exudations that bind us all together, ready or not, higgledy-piggledy, into one great glorious and tawdry Florida of global culture.