When I was a child, almost everyone I knew had a single telephone kept in a draughty hallway. Why the hallway I don’t know. Perhaps the bell was better heard from there or else they were copying the location from posher homes where once a butler would have answered it. Until recently, there was also a single place — a study or spare room — where people went to use a computer. Today laptops outsell desktops and wireless internet access means you can use them in every room. This seemingly small detail will have far-reaching effects.
For instance, have you ever wondered where people find time for the many hours they now spend on the net? Accepted wisdom long held we were watching less television. In fact the British spent more time watching broadcast television last month than ten years ago.
Where has the time come from? Radio and newspapers in part. But another explanation is that people use computers and television in tandem. You could see this as attention deficit disorder but, in truth, the two activities can be complementary. What television does badly (especially in-depth information), the web does spectacularly well.
So it’s odd how few attempts have been made to create entertainment to be consumed concurrently on both screens. I suspect this will be the next big thing in media. Reading Colin Cameron’s fascinating new book You Bet on the history of Betfair.com, I was intrigued to learn that thousands now use the site to place online bets while matches and races are in progress, the odds shifting dramatically up to the final seconds. This has transformed the thrill of betting on sports like golf and football. And gamblers have discovered for themselves a new form of parallel entertainment which media owners have overlooked.
I don’t bet, so my own version of internet-enriched viewing is checking up on period trivia while watching historical dramas. During the final episode of Mad Men, set during the Cuban Missile Crisis, I was intrigued to hear Acker Bilk’s 1962 instrumental ‘Stranger on the Shore’ (the first British male single ever to head the US charts) played during a bar scene. So was this the song people chose to buy when minutes from oblivion? How appropriate if it were.
I checked Wikipedia. Wrong. Brace yourself for the actual number one, because you’ll find it as unbelievable as I did. While, deep beneath the Caribbean aboard the Soviet submarine B-39, Commander Vasily Arkhipov was beseeching his superior not to fire a nuclear torpedo on the USS Beale, Americans in droves were going out to buy ‘The Monster Mash’ by Bobby (Boris) Pickett and the Crypt-Kickers. As so often, television delivers the polished narrative view of history while the web provides the humbler truth.
A few links later I learned something more surprising still. During the crisis, each knife-edge communication sent between Kennedy and Khrushchev took eight hours to arrive. Forbidden to use the telephone, the Soviet embassy painstakingly encrypted each side’s revised terms in standard telegrams. As Anatoly Dobrynin, the then Soviet ambassador in Washington, recalled: ‘We had to ring up Western Union and a black man on a bicycle would come round. We had to hope he wouldn’t get distracted by some girl.’
If you ever want a reminder of the value of modern communication, that’s surely it. And, Western Union man, thank you.