The Big Ball of Wax
Shepherd Mead

Shepherd Mead

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The Big Ball of Wax


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The Big Ball of Wax

A Story of Tomorrow’s Happy World

Copyright © 1954 by Shepherd Mead


Now I know that all of you have heard of the early days of XP, and you are going to expect some mighty spicy material. I hope I won’t disappoint you, but you have to realize that in a memo of this type which will be available to the Organization, we have to think of morale and of keeping up the moral fiber, both of which are all important.

So when I come to the places where I had to take part in the well-known orgies, which of course I had to do in line of duty and not through any personal desire, I’ll try to be brief and factual.


I mean nothing is to be gained from lingering over that kind of thing, especially since nowadays we don’t have much more of it, except on certain occasions for certain people. We can certainly prove that it does very little good for business, except in more or less high-level situations where a type of good will is involved. It is definitely not for the general public.

I’m glad we’re through with all that because we have all certainly found out that business has to be kept on a high moral plane, except in certain situations.



A pine-scented mist filled the stall. [...] After three seconds I stepped out of the stall guaranteed to smell, for at least twenty-four hours, more like a grove of pines than a human being, or double my money back. This, of course, was good, because after a few hours of exertion on the part of a human, a pine tree smells definitely better.

I decided right then to be old-fashioned and get her something on Momsday, too. That is if I had enough money left after the business presents, and cards, and everything.

Since ours was a nice neighborhood, most of the houses were Custom-Bilt, which meant really that they were pre-fabricated and mass produced. Ours was a Kelvinator, the one next door a Bendix, and down the block were Wear-Evers, GEs—all kinds. The newest one, by the corner, was a ten-room Cadillac Convertible, with sliding walls. I always used to feel a little jealous every time I passed it.


Housing construction

At my 200 m.p.h. cruising speed I could theoretically make it in a minute or two. Actually, of course, traffic was almost as bad as it is today and I had to allow almost an hour. You could never count on an average of better than 7 m.p.h.




I went into my office and stepped into the bathroom, strictly a junior-executive type bathroom, just the john and bowl, no Bod-ee-Wash, no sunlamp, nothing. Most of us in those days lived a simple, Spartan life. No frills, such as we’re used to today.

I don’t think I’m bragging when I say that even in those days we had market research down to a real science [...] We gave everybody exactly what they wanted, what the largest percentage wanted that is, and if this isn’t Democracy I don’t know what is.




[...] it was getting dark and the constellation PEPSI COLA was beginning to rise in the east the way it had since I was a boy and does, of course, to this day. Back then the bright star whose name escapes me used to dot the “i” on Momsday Eve, the way it was planned, instead of coming over the “o” like it does today, due to slipping.

I got a bang every time I saw it, and still do today. It kind of adds to the dignity of man.



The blank wall filled with color and we heard screams and gunshots. A detective serial was ending an episode and a man in a slouch hat and a trenchcoat—he was the detective—was sloshing around in a pool of blood with a young lady who looked absolutely naked even though she was actually fully clothed on account of the broadcasters’ code. It was probably the way they fitted her into the clothes.

“Wrong channel,” said Mommy Halpern, pushing a button.

The pool of blood snapped to a shot of a young lady swinging from a beam by a rope around her ankles. She was being horsewhipped. You just saw the shadow, and the camera shot was very artistic. I couldn’t help thinking how wonderful the technicians were getting. In fact, not a month went by when there wasn’t some very real technical development in TV. It was Progress, all right.





“That’s our Praisegod Machine,” Harry said, “an exclusive Yourchurch development. Actual recordings of the entire congregation. They’re doing some real fine hymns and some specially-written Praisegod talk. We had a top script man do it up for us, brought him in from New York. Money was no object. And then, Lanny-boy, get this. We had the whole thing multiple-recorded, every single voice is multiplied fifty times. And whatta we do? We play it all the time, twenty-four hours a day. The statistics on it are pretty wonderful. Actually praise-wise we figure forty-eight hours of this equals the entire congregation singing away every Sunday for fifteen years!”

“It should make God very happy, all right.”

“We beam it right straight up.”

“Why don’t you beam it directional?” I asked him.

“Which direction?” said Harry.

“You call the Episcopal Church down the street and they’ll tell you.”


“But all kidding aside,” said Harry, “this thing saves us one hell of a lot of time which otherwise might be wasted just singing hymns, and all that. We can sure use it, boy, building up the moral fibers and making contacts, all of which are mighty important in our sensible straight-thinking Yourchurch policy.”



“We got our quiet, spiritual side, too, Lanny. Harry Murray really had his finger on the pulse, and he knew there’s a very definite consumer demand for comfort, and I don’t mean the easy-on-the-tail foam rubber type, I mean deep on the inside. Here is a real spiritual market, where the demand is one hell of a sight bigger than the supply, so it’s just common horse sense we should milk it.”

I, like so many of you, probably read several written-books in college. It was part of the freshman English course and they gave over a number of weeks to it, before we got into the visual aid classes on Merchandising, Distribution, and all the serious stuff.

Anybody knew it was almost impossible to keep your mind on a written-book, I mean a real written-book with absolutely nothing but printed words. It’s hard enough to keep your mind on television now that we’ve made the big step to XP.


Books (general)

“He’s writing the greatest book ever written. He’s been working on it for fourteen years.”

“What’s it about?” I asked.

“Who knows?” he said. “Everything—and nothing.”

“It all takes place in one second of consciousness,” she said. “And that in itself wouldn’t be too difficult, except that Ben has set himself the task of burying in each chapter the names of all the counties in southwest Missouri.”

“Why?” I asked.

“Why not?” he said.

I couldn’t answer that.

“And it’s further complicated by the fact that Ben decided English wasn’t quite right for it.”

“Sibilant moments,” he said, “must be written in sibilants, and guttural moments must be written in gutturals.”



I walked around the rock and I couldn’t see it from there, either.

“It’s inside,” said Mrs. Schroeder, “inside the stone. The meaning is all in the concavity.”

Letty lifted off a piece of the rock and I could see there was a hole inside, sort of a shaped hole. “It’s a fine hole, all right,” I said. “How can you see the whole shape of it, all at once?”

“You can’t,” Letty said. “That’s the beauty of it.”



“A generation or so ago he’d have been a famous writer, but now of course there aren’t any famous writers.”

I knew that wasn’t true, but I didn’t say anything. I happened to know a couple of very famous writers, not inimately, but I’d met them over at the agency. Why some of them made two or three million a year and it was really very easy work. They just had to study the figures of the last week’s push-button tabulation to find out how much everybody liked any part of the show. Then they punched up the weak parts and made the good parts even better. There wasn’t much guesswork about it, it was a regular science.

“If you give all the people what sixty per cent of the people want,” she said, “and put it in a fancy enough package, and don’t give them anything else to choose from, then your standards will go down, almost as fast as your techniques go up.

“Already our capacity for attention has gone down so far that fewer and fewer of us can stay interested in a printed page.”


“I think that’s what they’re meeting about, the St. Louis situation.”

“But they don’t know anything about the St. Louis situation. That’s what I’m finding out.”

“Oh, that’s all right. This is high level.”

I should have known that my going away wouldn’t stop high-level thinking at Con Chem, which went on all the time, even when they had very little to go on. You just can’t turn off a high-level thinker, particularly of our type.



What they did, I learned later, was to run two tracks together, one of them with the sight and sound of Molly and me all dressed and kneeling in front of the candle, and this other one that must have been made in the dark, with no sound, but with a great deal of other things.


Now I know some of you will say, “Why didn’t you push the button and turn the whole thing off?” All I know is that I did not. And besides, the atmosphere was extremely moral because all the time I was looking at the candle and Molly’s voice was telling me to struggle with myself and cast out my evil desires and triumph over them.

What I was feeling, I guessed, was just an illustration of the evil desires, and quite a clear one I might add.

When the woman’s body touched me they must have turned the sensation volume up to about triple, by which I mean you felt it three times as much, if possible.

In fact the result was such a good illustration that if you don’t mind I would prefer not dwelling on what happened for about the next half hour or so. You might say I cast the evil desires out, all right, because after that time I had for all practical purposes very little desire of any kind.

10 Some people always look like they had a bad night last night, and there are two types of these, the kind that look like it was worth it and the ones who are sorry.


Two kinds

12 It was like an intermission, almost to “work up an appetite” again, though actually with a tape, as all of you know, it is possible to eat all day since you do not really get full, and this of course applies to practically everything. I asked Artie later once why he always had girls in batches of three and he said he believed in moderation.
13 I need scarcely add how much more businesslike all agencies have become since the electronic copywriting machines replaced the live copywriters, who were always a disturbing influence. And of course the copy has been improved. Naturally this does not mean that any less real thinking is done. That is still done as it always was by the Account Executives. They simply get on a copy-requirements-dictaphone and say, for instance, “Now this isn’t copy but what we wanta say is how damn wonderful and amazing this damn thing is.” In other words, just the kind of thing they used to tell the live copywriters. You just put this dictaphone tape into the machine, set it for mental level (in fact a few notches below, just to be sure) and it comes out in short, punchy sentences, with plenty of personal references, like “to you” and “to me,” and with all short words. The machine also gives it a quick electronic C-and-B survey for comprehension and believability. Of course these machines are more expensive than live copywriters, but they sure are worth it.




“Survey by survey we were finding out more and more surely what the lowest common denominator was in motion pictures, television, comic books—everything.

“We were giving it to them, and making it just a little lower for good measure. Notch by notch the mental level was dropping, thinking was decreasing, self-expression dying out. Year by year we’ve become more passive, our concentration duller, our minds flabbier. The individual is dying, the mass is rising. And freedom of thought is going, not by force but by default.”


His troubles began almost as a child. His father was in the sign business and he was taught at an early age to obey signs. Since the day he learned to read he has kept off the grass, watched out for children, and not fed the animals.

The worst was yet to come. One day, years later, he was lolling about his suite of offices, when a friend dropped in and left a sign reading, “THINK.” Mead tore it down quickly, but the damage had already been done.

“In fact,” he said, “if we can only go on without thinking, as we have in the past, the happy world outlined in my book may very well prove to be more than just a rosy dream.”

text checked (see note) May 2006

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