Last weekend we were in New Jersey and had a few hours to spare, so we visited Thomas Edison’s Laboratory Complex in West Orange. When I was in school, we took a field trip to Edison’s lab in Menlo Park, where he worked on the light bulb. However, I didn’t realize he later went on to found a huge operation employing many people to develop and fine-tune inventions and then crank out marketable products.
I was struck by a comment near the end of the audio tour. A biographer said that Edison was a major figure in the first technology revolution in the late 1800s. He invented the phonograph and made improvements to motion picture technology. Before Edison, entertainment in the form of plays, concerts and sporting events, was largely a community event. But Edison’s work on improving films and making recorded music available to the masses allowed people to have more choice about what they wanted to listen to or see, and when, the biographer said. It made entertainment “more convenient,” and “established the idea that we should be able to choose” our entertainment. Edison’s genius was not just in creating new technologies, but also bringing them into the marketplace.
Now that’s interesting. Edison contributed to the world in which we live now, in which families have televisions in every room, where each person chooses what to watch, and then watches it by himself or herself. And where teenagers tune out the family conversation with MP3 players attached to their ears via earbuds. To a world where there is more individual choice, and probably more access, but where that social aspect of entertainment is greatly diminished.
On balance, is that a good thing? Would we be better off if recorded music and moving pictures had never been invented?