The Victorian Internet

Just to clarify; when I say Reading I’m really only talking about the books that I feel like sharing. At any moment I’m in the middle of three to seven different books. That’s spread among ebooks, paper books, audiobook, possibly a few scrolls. At times one of those books bubbles to the top and I just have to tell everyone about it.

The Victorian Internet, by Tom Standage, is the best example of that kid of book, the one where every page I was setting the book down to relay to my wife what I just read. “For God’s sake, I’ll just read it later!” she’d reply. Not that it would stop me. “OK, but just read this paragraph, and then these two chapters,” I’d say.

Working from the first electric telegraphs and telegraphic experiments, to the horrors of war-by-wire in the Crimea, and the rise of wunderkind Thomas Edison from lowly operator to mutiplexing mogul, the book drives home the utter weirdness of global communication. As the first transatlantic cable failed, and governments demanded an accounting of all messages send (in order to prove it wasn’t a hoax), politicians were shown ream after ream of messages: “Did you receive?” “Please resend.” The Can you hear me now of the 1860s.

The telegraph sank after the telephone rose up to take its place, just as text messaging and Slack-style chat clients are replacing both telephone and email conversations. Its offspring continued into the 20th century, such as the stock ticker, and what would become fax machines. Standage writes:

All of these dedicated devices used variations of the original telegraph technology for particular purposes. The same thing is now happening to the Internet, as it becomes embedded into other devices…

It may be simple apophenia that leads us to look for connections between the past and the present, to find a cyclical pattern in the randomness of history. But in comparing the development and life of the electric telegraph, there’s valuable insight for the generations growing up with the total connectivity of the modern Web.

We can get hung up on the superficial similarities, the marriages-by-wire, AFK-style shorthand, the reach of technology far outstripping its grasp. But as businesses became addicted to a constant flow of information, the seeds were sown for a problem we still face in the 21st century; Information Overload.