2017-03-01

Book Review: "The Victorian Internet" by Tom Standage

I recently read The Victorian Internet by Tom Standage. It's a brief history about the technical development of the telegraph, developments in telegraph operations, its uses, its rise, and its eventual decline. It particularly goes into the various ways that optical and then electrical telegraph systems were developed by different independent inventors, the difficulties in laying cables for long-distance telegraphy, and the ramifications of the telegraph for business, politics, military actions, newspapers, and day-to-day communications among ordinary people (despite the usual hype of that time about how instant communication would bring people together and effect world peace), comparing these issues to the issues people care about with regard to the Internet, given their similar network structures (though do note that this book was written in the late 1990s, so the author couldn't have even imagined things like Google, Facebook, or Twitter at that time). It's a short book that is a fairly engaging and fast-paced read throughout, so I'd recommend it; my only minor complaint is that the discussion of messaging through pneumatic tubes, while certainly relevant to the chronological history of the telegraph, seems to be a bit of a distraction from the main point of how relatable the 19th century telegraph system would be to users of today's Internet. Follow the jump to see a few more points about the book.

Already, at the time of the telegraph, there was concern about how business and war could be conducted remotely, particularly regarding the instant response of telegraphs allowing politicians to micromanage military events in response to public pressure in unprecedented ways; new diplomatic issues arose from this too. This seems a bit too familiar to me given current events (how the current president of the US seems to conduct policy and diplomacy via Twitter). Moreover, I've also thought that making the world smaller through such a network makes geographically-based corporate laws obsolete, because if a CEO can run a company remotely via email, then having that CEO run away from one country's law to another welcoming country is never a problem for the company. This isn't always a bad thing, depending on the situation, but in any case, it does seem reminiscent of the issues raised by the proliferation of telegraphy.

I was thinking of how application of telegraphy to commodity price or lottery winnings communication is like impact of cell phones on fish prices in Kerala (providing information to reduce arbitrage & cheating), and indeed there is a direct parallel to the development of telegraphic fish markets in Britain in the late 19th century.

Even at that time, it was economically efficient to lay telegraph lines along railway lines, networking from there (and it was in the context of the telegraph network that the term "network", alluding to a large spiderweb, became popular). I point this out only because I've been reading more about proposals for high-speed rail in the US, and many such proposals call for laying wires for electricity and data transmission alongside railway lines when they are built, so it is clear that such proposals have ample historical precedent.

Some telegraph operators stationed in other countries with very different cultures preferred socializing with other telegraph operators via telegraphy rather than interacting with locals of the new culture, showing how people even then could be trapped in bubbles through network effects (though the impact of this was limited by the fact that not everyone was a telegraph operator in the way that everyone can access and contribute to websites, web forums, and so on today).

Newspapers formed collective organizations called news agencies (the first of which was what is now the Associated Press) in the mid-19th century to economize scale when using telegraphy, as costs were per message and per word, so a whole bunch of newspapers would get a single series of telegrams from far away. That said, although the telegraph in the US was primarily used for business, in the context of newspapers, it led to issues of information overload and subsequent backlash (illustrating a part of attention merchants not touched upon in the book The Attention Merchants by Tim Wu).

Future inventions that dramatically improved the efficiency and speed of telegraphy, and the further invention of the telephone, in turn made telegraphy a low-skilled occupation that didn't need so many workers, the opposite of what it had been before. This transformation of a high-skilled, highly-staffed operation to the opposite seems to track the rise and fall of other technologies through industrial history too, as I remember learning in the MIT class STS.001 — Technology in American History.

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