Friday, March 16, 2007

Blogging isn't CB radio, but .

Back in 2003, when the Chronicle of Higher Education wondered to itself whether blogging would go the way of the CB radio, the question was already a cliché. It's turned out to be a cliché with impressive staying power, since people are still posing that question online today, as if it were some sort of novel idea.

What irritates me about the question isn't its relevance, but its technological and cultural snob appeal. It assumes that CB was a perfectly serviceable tool, appropriately used by taxi drivers and truckers, until uneducated masses of enthusiasts swarmed upon it, like flies on the carcass of a wildebeest. Americans filled the airwaves with a babble of pointless, inane chatter, before suddenly abandoning all their radios in the dumpsters of interstate rest stops.

Blogging, the suggestion goes, might prove to be just another silly fad, like CB. Everyone's blogging now, but soon we'll all repent our foolishness and feel embarrassed about those blogs we stuffed with our inanities.

I'm disinclined to be dismissive. I suspect that the CB radio craze was a signature event in American culture of the 1970s. The fact that it was short-lived doesn't diminish its significance. Perhaps by attempting seriously to understand the appeal of the CB, we can better understand the current blogging phenomenon and make clearer predictions about its future.

One problem with CB radio phenomenon is that it dates to the 1970s, a decade that was hard to take seriously even while we were living it. Citizens band frequencies/channels had been available to the populace since the 1940s, but as late as the 1960s they were used only commercially by radio dispatchers and cab companies. Transistor technology eventually made the hardware affordable, and the FCC opened additional channels to the public. But improvements in the technology didn't themselves create the sudden, unprecedented demand for these radios.

The root cause of the CB craze was, in fact, a political event: the passage of the universally despised national speed limit of 55 mph. In 1973, an act of Congress turned every American motorist into a potential outlaw. The CB became the most essential weapon Americans had for combating the federal government's attempted curtailment our right to drive as fast as we chose and squander as much gasoline as we could afford to.

Used at first by interstate truckers, for the practical purpose of outwitting the highway patrols, the CB became a romantic symbol of the era. Truckers themselves, usually liminal figures in the national mythology, enjoyed a short period of glory, replacing the cowboy as the symbol of independence and rebelliousness. Two major stars of the time, Clint Eastwood and Burt Reynolds, played truckers in some of the biggest movies of their careers. A 1975 song titled "Convoy" by C.W. McCall made its way to the top of the charts around the world.

The 1970s was the decade of the road. For those who weren't around at the time, it's hard to grasp the sense of discontent, restlessness and dislocation that characterized the era.

Hitting the road had become a central theme of popular culture even before the national speed limit. As early as 1971, Carol King lamented about singing "One more song about moving along the highway / Can't say much of anything that's new."

Maybe it was the national hangover we were suffering after the turbulent, assassination-filled 1960s. Maybe it was weariness over our mounting losses in Vietnam and disillusionment with the political process that eventually culminated in the Watergate scandal. Maybe it was a series of recessions and a sense that the country was losing its competitive edge internationally. Maybe it was the fact that, as McLuhan once noted, societies where social mobility is diminished just naturally become nomadic.

Whatever the reason (or, more likely, combination of reasons), we were suddenly a country of Jack Kerouacs, all of us on the road searching for something we couldn't define. The CB radio filled a growing void. We'd lost our old communal ties, and required a tool to build new social networks on the highways. We were lonely. But more than that, we were yearning to reconnect with a unique American character we felt we'd lost. The CB wasn't just a radio: it was a stage where people developed complex, exaggerated, often comic personas for themselves. The airwaves were all at once filled with distinctive characters, sometimes almost mythic figures, joining in a great Whitmanesque chorus of American voices.

And then the craze ended, as suddenly and (at least on the surface) inexplicably as it had begun. But the end, I think, can also be linked to a political event: the 1980 presidential election, when Ronald Regan succeeded Jimmy Carter to the office.

Everone remembers Jimmy Carter as the president of "malaise," even though he did not actually use the word in the infamous address when he attempted, more frankly than the American public was comfortable hearing, to diagnose the nation's ills, its failure of nerve and loss of self-confidence. The word has nevertheless attached itself to the Carter administration -- unfairly so, because the whole decade was a period of malaise, not simply the four years he served as President. Ronald Reagan was not a great President, whatever the conservatives' nostalgia for him would claim, but he was the cure for the malaise that ailed us at the time. He restored Americans' belief in themselves and in the future.

His voice unified the country, reunited us with our communities and with our sense of self. By the time the national speed limit was repealed in 1982, the CB craze was already well over.

The CB served a social, political and emotional need of its time. Once those needs were satisifed or could be met in other ways, the craze ended. Blogging may also be a patch on some contemporary wound to our collective psyche, some ache that can only be soothed by spinning new social networks where we can proclaim and celebrate our individualities, while also solacing ourselves in the comfort of the crowd. History has shown that when we suffer the curse of living in "interesting" times, we develop interesting media to help us cope.

1 comment:

stoneybrook said...

Are you sure you're describing the same decade that I lived through? CB was a silly fad, and everyone who used it was an idiot. You're certainly romanticizing it.