Last night I stumbled upon Orson Welles’s The Magnificent Ambersons (1942) on TCM and I have to admit I’d never seen it before. In fact, I didn’t see the whole film I just caught a piece of it, but it was enough to blow me away, and even stop watching so that I could watch it through from beginning to end. I’ve heard a lot about this film over the years, and it really doesn’t need anymore promotion, but the scene I happened to catch seemed to speak to our very moment so directly I can’t help but reproduce it below.
In the following scene an early car manufacturer, Eugene Morgan (Jospeh Cotten), talks about how automobiles will not only change the the physical and social landscape, but also subtly alter “mens’ minds.” What’s great about his short monologue is that it acknowledges the fact that the invention of the automobile, while not necessarily a positive force, it’s an undeniable one. I can’t help but feel that the conversation at the dinner table at the turn of the 20th century about the automobile is in many ways ours now. The discussions about how the internet will subtly rewire our minds, transform institutions, and dramatically shift our notions of space and time.
Like Morgan notes, we can see the great shifts in our culture as a result of the
automobile internet plain as day, but the larger question as to whether or not these transformations will remain a generative force is what fascinates me. I’d be the first to admit that some overarching idea of the internet as a necessarily positive or negative force is a gross oversimplification of the complex cultural accretions that make it both possible and powerful as a platform for connection. But given how this space is often connected with the rhetoric of liberation and possibility, the real complexity emerges when we start to realize how much of our infrastructure for personal expression is made possible by the emerging Fords and GMs of our time. The idea of a freedom of expression built on the infrastructure that is in no way a public work, but almost from the get go a private toll road. Infrastructure seems to be a lot more than content to me, it seems to be the more basic idea of networked access.