On the Road – From “Where We’ve Been” to “Where We’re Going”
In this final part of the series, the Curmudgeon looks backwards (with just a little nostalgia) at the ARS of fifty years ago as a reference point for today’s Service and notes that, even then, it was not a perfect society. And he gazes into a well-clouded crystal ball and hazards a few guesses about its future.
In describing the ARS as it existed fifty years ago, the Curmudgeon does not intend to suggest that ego and competition were totally absent from it, even then. There were regularly scheduled on-air operating contests, there were always a few individuals who could afford to purchase new “Cadillac-grade,” i.e., Collins Radio ham gear (although the average operator’s purchasing budget for his station in those days, calculated in constant-value dollars, was significantly smaller than it is today), and there were certainly individual hams of legendary renown in the Service then. But all of this occurred within a well-established, larger community context of generally cooperative effort and of work by individuals toward personal self-improvement.
An illustrative, really more of an exemplary example of that period was the late Don Wallace, W6AM. While the Curmudgeon did not know Wallace personally, no one who did would have ever suggested that Wallace was an excessively humble and modest man. In his time he developed a very technologically-advanced and truly unrivaled Amateur station and he used it to make hundreds of thousands of contacts with hams in every distant part of the world, to the considerable envy of many other hams. But Wallace was an excellent on-air operator, he had made very significant technical achievements in which to take pride, he contributed new knowledge to the ARS, and he was well-liked by his fellow hams in return. This is not necessarily the case with today’s radio “studs.”
Nor was every well-known ham of that era as outgoing as Wallace. While the Curmudgeon was still a new ham he was privileged to meet the late John Chambers, W6NLZ, the Amateur who made the first series of terrestrial, entirely over-water, direct VHF/UHF radio contacts between the U.S.’s west coast and Hawaii. And despite his (well-earned) fame and high degree of technical skill, Chambers was an eminently approachable and very helpful ham. So although it certainly existed in those days, operator ego was not especially dominant in the Service.
Thus it’s not the existence of ego itself which has changed the ARS over the past half-century. It’s the ascendency of operator ego and its offspring, “uber-competitiveness,” as a principal organizing force that has transformed the Service. This characteristic, along with weaker technical backgrounds and “consumerism,” certainly doesn’t animate every single one of today’s ARS licensees, rather just too many of them. These ego-driven operators seemingly have now become the on-air majority, leaving the remaining thoughtful, considerate, and helpful operators in the minority. Perhaps, given the stridency and shrillness which have overtaken the contemporary national culture, this change in the Service was foreordained. Today’s overall national culture, like entropy itself, “just isn’t what it used to be!”
And where might these current trends take the ARS in future years? That’s a very difficult question, but one well worth pondering. One could propose a Yogi Berra style of answer: “The future will be much like the present, only more so!” But Professor Berra might just have a point there: in the absence of an external force, things tend to keep moving on a straight-ahead path (and a tip of the hat to Professor Newton for that principle!). And “straight-ahead” for the ARS would mean a less-knowledgeable, more “consumerized,” and more ego-driven Service.
The “less-knowledgeable” ARS operator trend parallels the general state of technical education in the US; it would be difficult to envision Amateurs as a group becoming more technically informed about their field without the entire society’s taking a considerably more serious approach to mathematics, science, and engineering education. “More consumerized” also follows the emerging cultural norms of the general national society which, in the Curmudgeon’s previously-expressed opinion, “is besotted by consumer electronics.” And even within that area the ARS must operate with a handicap: it alone among all other consumer electronics pastimes still does require a demonstration of the entrant’s basic qualifications, through written examinations. This, of course, is wholly at variance with the “instant gratification” ethic which underlies most consumer electronics!
The uber-ego is the most troubling future trend. It could well lead to a long-term debasing of the overall quality of operators within the Service, in a kind of parallel to Gresham’s Law of money: all other things being kept equal, the “bad operators” may systematically drive out the “good operators.” Older licensees with knowledge and experience (skills that they presumably could share with the larger community) may discontinue operating and leave the air when they perceive that their efforts have been overwhelmed. Eventually time will claim them all.
Perhaps the most difficult aspect of all to ponder is the identification of a possible future “external force” that might deflect the current ARS path and provide some incentive for improvement of the Service and its operators. Such a force could come in the form of a significant external threat to the ARS, such as a well-organized and well-funded attempt to de-allocate entire frequency bands from Amateur use, or a significant threat to the nation as a whole, such as from terrorism.
Or such a force, in a positive sense, might be unforeseen technological developments which would provide Amateurs with far more communications capabilities than they currently have and would foster a challenge to put the new capacities to good practical use. Out of these possibilities might arise a reinvigorated purpose and mission for the ARS, with its operators then refocused on more than just contests and equipment purchasing. All roads are possible, none are certain, and the old Curmudgeon regrets only that he may not have enough remaining time to see the ultimate outcome.
Finally, let’s make a summarization to this retrospective (and partially prospective) look at the ARS. Yes, today’s Amateurs can do hugely more than their predecessors could do fifty-years ago, given the exponentially more sophisticated technology now available. Yes, there still is much good work for today’s Amateurs to do: experimentation and innovation, emergency communications, international good will, etc. Yes, there are still some good, cooperative, helpful Amateurs on the air.
But the majority of the ARS “brotherhood” of today is more obstreperous, more competitive (even when cooperation would work equally as well), and just generally less accommodating than it was in former days. Even given this situation, the Curmudgeon most emphatically does NOT assert that the current ARS is either completely evil or totally worthless, but rather that today’s ARS culture is not all that it once was or could (and should!) again be. The ARS culture of the 1950s-60s was certainly not Nirvana, but it was a distinct improvement over todays.
The ARS is not going to spontaneously and unilaterally change, and the Curmudgeon by himself can’t rebuild what has been torn down. In the dumbed-down, consumerized, and ego-driven ARS of today, much of the camaraderie, the shared sense of community, the joys of cooperation and of self-discovery that once existed have now mostly passed. Older hams feel this loss; younger hams will never know and experience what is now gone. And the Service is the poorer for it.
What do you think?
“Let’s keep the universe safe for RF!”
The Old RF Curmudgeon