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Tuesday, July 14, 2009

The Victorian Internet by Tom Standage


One of the great values of studying history is tracing the seeds of the past which have grown up to become our present. Probably of more value is the lesson taught so long ago to us by King Solomon: “There is nothing new under the sun.” Tom Standage’s The Victorian Internet is both a celebration of progress as well as a caution to those of today who tend to be overly enthusiastic about technology’s potential to eliminate all our problems. The Victorian “Internet” was the telegraph and while the telegraph office and all those “dots and dashes” seem so simple and quaint today, telegraphy literally did create the first world wide web. People didn’t have Tweets, Twitter, and Texting, but did follow one another in real time communication and made up short abbreviations to save time and money all the same. People did commerce and shopping via the telegraph, forwarded jokes, found true love and even committed bank fraud and stock trades in ways eerily similar to the present day. What’s more, the Victorian telegraphy pioneers knew they were making the world smaller with implications for instant news, waging war, and a belief that world peace would at last be possible. People in the Victorian era even complained of “information overload” as big city newspapers would print 4 editions a day to keep up with the flow of news coming in via the telegraph. Of course the telegraph went into decline with the invention of the telephone (which was discovered in the process of trying to improve the telegraph) but then telephony linked with the digital made possible a world linked with personal telegraphs in the form of a computer or hand-held mobile device. In other words, the idea of telegraphy remained but has transmogrified into a digital form. Standage writes a very crisp book here that chronicles the invention and spread of the telegraph in western culture in a very entertaining way. And once again it reminds the reader that the more things change, the more they remain the same.