Urgent. Internet 150 years old. Stop.
Marina Benjamin warns against a back-to-front perspective on the age of the telegraph; The Victorian Internet by Tom Standage Weidenfeld & Nicolson, pounds 12.99, 216pp
Saturday 22 August 1998
In language that could have come straight out of Wired or MacUser, one telegraph enthusiast swooned over "the electric wires which web the world in net-work or throbbing life". The year was 1878, a time when Victorians were routinely plugging in to their own "highway of thought". They reached out to far-flung corners of the globe, using not bytes, but the busy strings of dots and dashes encoded by Samuel Morse.
The telegraph, like the Net, shrank the world only to multiply its contents. Nothing was too trivial to report: a flood in Shanghai, hard frosts in Siberia, the price of kangaroo hide in Borneo. As news and gossip thronged the wires, Victorians fretted about information overload. As today, the furious traffic in information gave rise to concerns about control and disclosure. Cheats and hacks abused the system, businessmen made their fortunes on the back of it, visionaries hailed the network as an instrument for peace, and clandestine romances blossomed online.
Tom Standage's appealing thesis trades on our willingness to thrill to this sort of deja vu. Every aspect of Internet culture finds its uncanny equivalent in the telegraph. The implication is that we are heirs not authors of the communications revolution. This argument strikes me as "Wrong but Wromantic", as 1066 And All That might have had it.
As a rule, historical approaches that view the past in terms of precursors ought to be resisted. They elicit the wrong kind of fascination: like applauding monkeys for pouring tea. Fetishising those Clever Victorians is commonplace these days, as we mourn the demise of the amateur inventor. But celebrating their achievements from a reassuring perspective that insists that we have outdone them does little to uncover the problems they wrestled with.
In this back-to front history, an "Internet" consisting of a system of overhead and underwater cables, supplemented by pneumatic tubes and an army of fleet-footed messenger boys, cannot help but look cumbersome. That said, Standage knows how to spin a good yarn. In recounting the early struggles of men such as Charles Wheatstone, Lord Kelvin and Samuel Morse to get telegraphy recognised as communication and not a conjuring trick, he blends anecdote, suspense and science into richly readable stuff. The fact that for a long time people refused to believe that electric current could encode meaning becomes the core of a quest narrative. And Standage is ever-attentive to the adjustments Victorians were obliged to make as a result of welcoming telegraphy into their lives: they balked, they resisted and, finally, they succumbed.
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