REVIEWS

The Entertainment Of Tomorrow Is All On This Man’s Wall

JON RUDDY July 1 1970
REVIEWS

The Entertainment Of Tomorrow Is All On This Man’s Wall

JON RUDDY July 1 1970

The Entertainment Of Tomorrow Is All On This Man’s Wall

REVIEWS

JON RUDDY

CONSIDER DONALD Gordon’s Wall. There it stands in the living room of his Waterloo,

Ontario, bungalow: a $15,000 bank of advanced audio-video equipment whose heart is a McIntosh preamplifier and whose brain is a unique time switch, the latter controlled — so far — by Gordon himself. The Wall is one of a kind, a prototype. We’ll all have something like it in 10 years or we’ll flounder around trying to keep up in the flood of information. Or we’ll drop out with the successors to the hippies.

Such are the alternatives — in the esoteric view of Donald R. Gordon, at any rate.

That overworked adjective “plugged-in” might well have been contrived for him. A 40-year-old former Canadian Press and Financial Post reporter and CBC correspondent who now teaches a course in communications at the University of Waterloo, he’s media-oriented to the extent that he scans 200 periodicals and watches TV bowling from Buffalo (which he insists is more informative about the state of society than The National News).

Gordon is also enthusiastic about the innovative qualities of commercials, and almost the first thing he did with the Wall, on its installation in May, was to set it up to record on video tape the blurbs clustered at hourly intervals in the TV schedule.

He built the Wall with his own money, partly to collect useful classroom material, keep up with developments in communications and make tapes of professional quality (he’s a free-lance producer and broadcaster). But primarily, he says, the Wall’s “for the joy of living.” Now he can selectively accumulate

HERE IS Donald Gordon’s own description of the major components of his living - room communications Wall. It was taped for Maclean’s by the Wall after a false start caused by Gordon’s inserting a cassette upside down.

“The first of my three tape recorders has a fourhour reel. It’s a Revox, which is one of the most expensive and flexible, with all kinds of buttons and capacities. It can record on two tracks and then automatically dub what’s on one on to the second. So I can build up tapes (with some loss of quality) the way records are built up to 16 tracks. The second recorder is a Sony with a seven-inch reel. I use this to copy from the Revox, or to build up a tape from a microphone to feed into the Revox. The third is a Philips cassette stereo set, connected so that I can take things off the air or through a microphone or use it to play through my sound system. Cassette recordings make it a little harder to play single cuts, but this one has a really good footage counter . . . There’s a

single-play Thorens turntable with a strobe light — to give you exact speed. The other one is a Dual changer that’ll play up to six records — I’ve got extension speakers at my desk in the basement. It’s got a pitch adjustment so that when I bang along on the banjo it’ll go a halftone up or down.

“There’s the McIntosh preamplifier. Everything switches through it, and for television sound or video tape playback you set it at the auxiliary position. Then you see the picture on the monitor and hear the sound through your speakers, which gives you a stereo effect. This is intriguing, especially with bedroom scenes. Gives you much better music, too. The amplifier is above it, and in between is the AM-FM tuner. It’s got all kinds of filters and things so that I can play around with the sound. With the preamplifier I’ve got separate bass and treble for each speaker. When I put on the full bass the floor shakes. It’s a 100-watt amplifier, just wild.

“Then there’s the Sony monitor; it’s called a Trini-

tron. And it’s unlike other color systems in that it has a single - source emission rather than the usual three color guns. And, I think, a much better picture. It’s an 18-inch screen. It’s set up to be either a standard TV set or a link to the video tape recorder when you switch to the line position. And together with its color pack it gives you the capacity to record black - and - white or color programs up to an hour in length with the tapes that I presently have. There’s a switch panel next to the seven-day timer. That timer has a two-stage turnon and turn-off mechanism and seven different power sources and enormously complicated wiring. It’s the only one in existence; it was designed for me by Bob Byrnes, a Toronto engineer who worked on the Avro Arrow. It will turn on the video tape to warm up and work in units as short as five minutes as much as seven days apart. The switch panel allows me to set the timer to record automatically from the TV or any combination of the other components.” □

GORDON continued

— and consume at his own convenience — information and entertainment streaming from nine (soon to be 86) cable-TV channels, 60 FM stations and the raucous AM band. He can tape from his 20-year-old collection of 800 record albums with superb fidelity (or the shaky accompaniment of his banjo and a friend’s guitar). He can do several of these things at once. And the Wall is organic, growing. For example, video cassette players are coming on the market; last month Gordon was about to put in his order. A sort of Kubrick Khan with 2,001 ideas, he has decreed more fanciful additions to his suburban pleasure dome.

Phase one of the Wall consists of three stereo tape recorders, two turntables, preamplifier and amplifier, AMFM tuner, color TV monitor, video tape recorder with color pack, two-stage sevenday timer, coaxial CATV input and rotatable rooftop FM aerial. There are two big speakers and some auxiliaries, and a plethora of fuses because, says Gordon, “I suspect the whole thing is liable to blow up any time. And the grand touch is a switch with a lock so I can shut off everything. This is my version of a car, in a way. My phallic symbol.”

Apart from bass speakers that could seemingly woof their way to the moon, the Wall’s masculinity is more subtle than that of your Panther Turbo-Surge Eight. But its capacity for sublimation is not. And its usefulness can only be estimated. When I saw it, the Wall was lacking a second time switch, so that radio and television could not be recorded simultaneously. Gordon explained how he’d use the completed Wall during a hypothetical week: “At the moment we’re prisoners of schedule. We have to be there when a program is on, or we miss it. Or we have to have somebody there to record it for us. With the combination of recording capacity and time switches, the Wall will turn itself on and

record, then turn itself off, whether I’m here or not, over a seven-day period. So I don’t have to worry about scheduling any more. That means that on Friday night my family can watch the best of the week’s television, except for live sports, and on Sunday afternoon we’re going to listen to radio, except again for some live things whose excitement is based on immediacy and suspense.

“Let’s say the two time switches are in; I’ve thought this through. I then could set the audio time switch — for instance, one of the things I’d tape every weekday all year long would be the CBCFM rebroadcast of Ideas at 7 p.m. That would be taped automatically. Then, I’d go through TV Guide every week and dial up what times that I wanted the video tape to go on every day — maybe for Clark’s series on Civilisation, some of the NET programs, University of the Air (I’ve done six of them myself and always have forgotten to watch) ... So that would be the basic storage for the week.”

During the morning I spent in Waterloo, Gordon screened a color video tape he’d made of a splendid NET special about folk singer Mason Williams. The screening prompted an irrelevant criticism from this comfortloving layman that the monitor was too high; on the other hand, Gordon had edited some extraneous continuity from the program. This led to the comforting thought that the major networks’ commercial interruptions would also be vulnerable to the home video taper’s art.

I should be so lucky as to get a stiff neck at home.

Then we got to talking about phase two of the Wall and its implications. A space equivalent to one of the Wall’s three present columns is reserved for a computer console. Gordon: “Two years ago in the Throne speech it was pointed out that regional data banks were going to be established in many communities. I’ll tie into the one

that’s projected for Waterloo or, on a time-sharing basis, into a commercial computer capacity. The difference between having access and not having access to one of these data banks will be geometric — if you don’t have it you’ll read yourself blind, talk to a million people and just get confused, or simply drop out, turn off. Then you could be manipulated by the people who did have access to the bank, the people who knew what was going to happen.”

An incredible profusion of information and services will be available to the data-bank subscriber. And as the raw data is monitored for material falling within a personal range of choices and interests, Gordon’s computerized Wall will gradually assume an awesome new role, that of an approximation of Gordon himself. “Just as a computerized version of the Canadian economy is used by the Department of Finance, a fairly sophisticated version of oneself will activate the scanning mechanisms and apply selectivity to the raw data,” he says.

At this point I must confess to an irrational and edgy recollection of Kubrick’s uppity computer, HAL, in the movie 2001, whose entertainment function, that of chess opponent, pointed up an ominous blurring in the line of demarcation between people and machines. But Gordon finds that the Wall “enlarges” its master “by input, by error, by juxtaposition and all the rest of it. Already I find myself talking to more people about more things . . . Your own capacity will grow to match the information flow. You’ll tell your computer, in effect: ‘Give me my most amusing 20 minutes or my most threatening 20 minutes.’ And all the film in existence can be monitored, all the audio tape, all the television emissions. And that will be the only way to keep on top of the information explosion.” Donald R. Gordon sees the nonlinear handwriting on the Wall. □