Archive of Posts from December 2007

Telegraph and the Internet

I'd like to review Tom Standage's book The Victorian Internet, but I know I'm going to end up talking about Neil Postman's The Disappearance of Childhood (again) instead. Oh well.

The Victorian Internet is a history of the telegraph, from the 18th century optical telegraph to the electrical telegraph that eventually wired the globe. The book looks at many of the personalities and conflicts that shaped the worldwide development of the telegraph—especially Samuel Morse—and describes some of the early cultural impacts that instant global communication had. It's an entertaining read filled with stories about entrepreneurial inventors, brilliant (and not-so-brilliant) engineers, code-breakers, telegraph operators, and a general public at the time who just didn't get this new technology.

By titling the book The Victorian Internet, Standage invites readers to draw parallels with our newest global communication network, and there are plenty to find. One of my favorites is the predicted demise of newspapers. In the early 1800's, news was local, and any other news travelled at the speed of ocean liners and horses. Newspapers devised elaborate schemes like meeting large ships in the ocean with faster boats or using carrier pigeons to get the news first. When the telegraph appeared, one newspaper man said, "The telegraph may not affect magazine literature, but the mere newspapers must submit to destiny, and go out of existence." He assumed the new speed of news would make print too slow for breaking news. In reality, the telegraph was a boon to Newspapers, and the public fell in love with the novelty of news from around the world.

The most striking parallel that Standage hammers home is the euphoric feeling people had that this technology would bring about world peace. Here are a few quotes from the time:
"It is impossible that old prejudices and hostilities should longer exist, while such an instrument has been created for the exchange of thought between all nations of the earth." - Briggs and Maverick, The Story of the Telegraph, 1858
"...the telegraph wire, the nerve of international life, transmitting knowledge of events, removing the causes of misunderstanding, and promoting peace and harmony throughout the world." - a toast to Morse, 1868
"...the touch of the telegraph key welded human sympathy and made possible its manifestation in a common universal, simultaneous heart throb...indicitive of a day when science shall have so blended, interwoven and unified human thoughts and interests that the feeling of universal kinship shall be, not a spasmodic outburst of occasional emotion, but constant and controlling, the usual, everyday, abiding feeling of all men toward all men." - Scientific American, 1881
Wow. One frustration I had with the book is that it offers up example after example such as these with love for the telegraph with little contemporary criticism. Addressing this, Standage offers:
Unfortunately, the social impact of the global telegraph network did not turn out to be so straightforward. Better communication does not necessarily lead to a wider understanding of other points of view; the potential of new technologies to change things for the better is invariably overstated, while the ways in which they will make things worse are usually unforeseen.
And that's about it! (That paragraph could be the synopsis of a good book.) He doesn't go into the ways the telegraph potentially made things worse. I thought some criticism was coming, with chapters titled War and Peace in the Global Village, and Information Overload, but rather than exploring criticisms these chapters show how the telegraph worked for good in various areas. Part of the problem is that we're living in the world the telegraph created and any critical history is also critical of our uses for technology today. Maybe looking at its potential downside should be work for social critics (or science fiction authors) rather than historians. But I feel like the title of the book invites comparisons with the Internet, and almost exclusively showing historic boosterism for the telegraph doesn't help us make informed decisions about today's technology.

I know the only reason I'm this cranky is because I happened to read The Disappearance of Childhood at the same time. Postman covers the history of the telegraph, but includes some of its discontents:
It is alleged that upon being told that through the telegraph a man in Maine could instantly send a message to a man in Texas, Thoreau asked, "But what do they have to say to each other?" In asking this question, to which no serious interest was paid, Thoreau was directing attention to the psychological and social meaning of the telegraph, and in particular to its capacity to change the character of information—from the personal and regional to the impersonal and global.
Now Postman is seeing himself in this (maybe apocryphal) story because he's critical of the changes mass communication brought to our culture, including his predicted demise of childhood. But I think this skepticism is healthy, and it's something missing from many conversations about new technology.

I think one of the biggest changes the telegraph brought (that Standage alludes to) is the possibility of centralized control of large organizations. The telegraph (and following electronic media) made transnational corporations possible. And it brought the ability to galvanize (control?) the public like never before. After all, the telegraph not only spread information at the speed of light, but disinformation as well. There have been negative effects from this, but it's hard to imagine the world any other way.

I'm an unashamed Internet-utopian, but I think it's important to keep the potential downsides of communication technology in mind so history doesn't repeat itself. The early days of the Internet helped wrestle some control away from the established info-controllers. After all, you're reading this and it wasn't approved by any centrally-controlled organization. But I think that centralized control is still a possibility. And if we simply end up shifting the control of information from a handful of corporations to a different handful of corporations, have we accomplished anything?

In the end a fun read, but it doesn't fully address the dark side of the telegraph's legacy.

ps. The stuff about the steam-powered pneumatic tubes was awesome.

pps. Happy New Year!

Childhood, Computers, and Hi!

Hello fans of the Internet. It's been over a month since I last clicked post, and I'm way overdue. You'd think I'd be teeming with witty observations and insights after all this time, but no. I think my internal operating system is still in newborn mode, which means I can't even post 140 characters or less to twitter very often. It's my own personal kernel panic.

I mentioned last time that I was reading The Disappearance of Childhood by Neil Postman, and I recently finished it. Here's a quick summary. Postman argues that the idea of childhood as a distinct, protected time in a person's life is a social construction that came into being shortly after the printing press was invented. By locking information into the fairly inaccessible, abstract form of written language that requires years of study to master, a distinction was formed between young and old that didn't exist in oral cultures. He mentions the idea of shame makes childhood possible by making certain information taboo to children. Basically, literate adults had access to vital information that wasn't available to young people, and an elaborate system of education was invented to train children to read and write so they could eventually participate. Children could be brought into adulthood gradually with structured guidance. Postman then says that the invention of the telegraph was the beginning of the end for the concept of childhood. (And perhaps formalized education along with it.)
...the telegraph began the process of making information uncontrollable...News from nowhere means news from everywhere, about everything, and in no particular order. The telegraph created an audience and a market not only for news but for fragmented, discontinuous, and essentially irrelevant news, which to this day is the main commodity of the news industry.
What does this have to do with childhood? The telegraph, telephone, photography, and finally television have made literacy less important, and information available to everyone, everywhere. Today's children encounter—and are forced to process—the adult world throughout our visual culture that moves information at the speed of light.
...if we turn over to chidren a vast store of powerful adult material, childhood cannot survive. By definition adulthood means mysteries solved and secrets uncovered. If from the start the children know the mysteries and secrets, how shall we tell them apart from anyone else?
Postman goes on to lament the diminishing idea of adulthood as well, blaming electronic media. He feels that fully literate culture has "...tolerance for delayed gratification, a sophisticated ability to think conceptually and sequentially, a preoccupation with both historical continuity and the future, a high valuation of reason and hierarchical order." Postman calls the new period between infancy and senility the adult-child.

Throughout the book I couldn't help but think of Postman yelling, "you kids get my off my lawn!" But his history of communication technology is worthwhile, and while his arguments aren't scientific, they're fun to mull over. The question I can't shake after reading the book: what does it mean to be an adult? Postman wrote the book in 1982, before the Web. I think the Web has definitely helped the cause of literacy, if only briefly. Broadband is turning the Web into a video-delivery device, and sites like YouTube are an intermediate step back toward a visually-dominated culture. Maybe?

To counter Postman a bit, I'm currently reading Mindstorms by Seymour Papert. Papert also believes formalized education is on its way out, computers are responsible, but this is a good thing. I'm only 50 pages into the book, but I'm struck by Papert's metaphors for teaching. He believes the best type of learning is similar to how we learn spoken languages, and he blames some education problems such as mathophobia on parents not "speaking math" around the house. Just as an English-speaking child learns French faster if they're surrounded by native speakers, so other skills such as reading literature and geometry are helped along by "native speakers" of those skills. He argues that children can learn to program computers, and in the process learn subjects "without being taught". Specifically, without being taught in the classic teacher/classroom sense. I'm also interested in his view of children as builders rather than consumers.

Mindstorms is from 1993, also pre-Web, and some of the ideas feel dated. But his prediction of computing ubiquity was correct, and his fears about how computers are used in the classroom as pre-programmed test-administers are also correct, I'm afraid. But I'm guessing there, and like I mentioned I'm just starting this book. It is comical to go from reading a Luddite to a Techno-Utopian so quickly. Papert's statement that, "what is good for professionals is good for children" would probably horrify Postman.

(Oh, and this book is where the name Lego Mindstorms comes from: The Origins of Mindstorms.)

In personal news the Oregonian had a nice article that mentioned ORblogs the other day: Portland is No. 2 in blogging, and I was quoted going on and on about the local blogosphere. I don't have as much time as I'd like to work on the site right now, but I get a few hours here and there every once in a while. I'm glad people are still interested in it, and I think it's still valuable to have community aggregators even though personal feed-readers are ubiquitous.

Until January (I suppose), take care.