We Are Monarchs
In Shakespeare's time, not even the Queen wielded the power that I commanded this morning in my bathrobe.
Earlier, I had videotaped the PBS "Masterpiece Theatre" production of The Merchant of Venice. I had not yet watched the tape, until the notion struck me to do so this morning.
Within seconds, the actors had been summoned to my home and had begun their private performance for me. I could see and hear them more clearly than had I been sitting in the royal box at the theater. Should I want to see a scene again, I had merely to lift a finger to command them to go back and repeat their lines. Should I have difficulty understanding Shakespeare's spoken language, closed captioning reproduced it in print right before my eyes.
What monarch of 400 years ago could have watched a play this excellently?
The Treasure House
And what monarch would not have marveled at another of my experiences? I beheld a throng of people walking out of a large building, each of them pushing an entire cartload of goods: food, clothing, luxuries, and more. These people were ordinary citizens, not servants of the royal court. How had they come by this overflowing wealth, so exceeding their bare necessities?
I entered the building. There I found wares literally stacked to the ceiling. If I desired a pair of shoes, for example, there were shelves and shelves of them in numerous colors and styles. Furniture, watches, bedding, richly patterned fabrics almost anything one could imagine was there in abundance.
Surely, this was the storehouse of some wealthy and powerful king! Yet people were merely picking up items on a whim and putting them into their carts. No one prevented the people from taking these treasures home. They had only to show the gatekeeper a small card that represented their promise to pay for the goods later. Imagine the reaction of a medieval king to the splendors of this place, this Wal-Mart.
The Private Orchestra
Or suppose that Johann Sebastian Bach were to visit my apartment. He would be surprised and flattered to discover on my piano bound volumes of his compositions, nearly three centuries after he wrote them. He would be more amazed to see a "jewel case" with his own portrait on the cover, and inside, a small glistening platter a most valuable jewel, indeed!
I insert the disc into a music box, and suddenly Bach's music is heard in the room. There is no orchestra to be seen, no choir. Nevertheless, the music is being performed beautifully, a notable improvement over the amateur talent that Bach had to deal with back in Leipzig. And I can command my musicians, like my Shakespearean actors, to start or stop or repeat or play more loudly. Once, only princes wielded such power.
The Greatly Improved Telegraph
From Bach's time, let us move forward to the next century. My great-grandfather, John Thomas Buckingham, would have known of a wonderful invention called the telegraph. It enabled messages to be sent instantly (at the rate of several characters per minute) all the way across the continent. Of course, J.T. didn't have a telegraph instrument on his farm.
But consider the progress since then. Wires have been run to almost everyone's home and office. They can send a million characters in the time it used to take to send one. They can also transmit sound, enabling two-way conversations between people on opposite sides of the globe! And they can transmit pictures, or even moving pictures.
At this very moment, wherever you are in the world, this modern telegraph can make a copy of John and Mary Buckingham's marriage license appear in seconds on a glowing screen right before your eyes. All you have to do is to lift a finger and click here. In rural Ohio in the autumn of 1869, when those two teenagers first held this piece of paper in their hands, would they have thought such a thing possible?
Maintain the Wonder
Sometimes we forget to appreciate the general prosperity that has turned all of us into wealthy, powerful monarchs. We ought to retain our awe.
In my college days, I once had to take care of some business with United Press International. First, I phoned UPI in nearby Cleveland. They told me to contact their Pittsburgh office, so I hung up and called Pittsburgh. In half a minute, I had virtually transported myself 150 miles. I had been talking to one person in a building in Ohio; now I was talking to someone else in another building in Pennsylvania. That's the equivalent of moving physically at orbital velocity, 18,000 miles per hour.
Americans do this routinely. We consider it trivial. But
I remember that at the time, I thought to myself: "Wow!"