Aleks Krotoski: Parallels between old and new social technologies

Tom Standage’s book The Victorian Internet was a revelation when I read it. As a cub academic, one of my colleagues in the psychology department – a woman who’s been doing fascinating research on smart homes – recommended it as an “airport read”. I’m very glad I did (although my book group didn’t find it nearly as fascinating and worthy as I did). It felt like stepping into an Infinite Perspective Machine: the hubris that we experience during the hysteria over a contemporary “new” technology often has parallels with previous periods of innovation. Standage places the Internet and the Web in this context.

Briefly, it describes the social changes that we attribute to the online environment, but as they were observed and practiced during the era of the telegraph. One of the phenomena he examines is love “over the wires”.

“During quiet periods… the online interaction really got going, with stories, jokes and local gossip circulated over the wires. According to one account, ‘stories are told, opinions exchanged, and laughs enjoyed, just as if the participants were sitting together at a club.’” (p. 124)

The Victorian Internet is one of my favourite books too (I can’t quite remember when I read it) and this quote that Aleks Krotoski highlights is one I’ve reflected on a bit over the years. I often mention it in presentations about social technology and society.

  • Firstly, the telegraph users were utilising slack in the system to communicate with each other. Remember that the telegraph was charged by the letter and its primary purpose was to transmit information that was delivered to other people, not as an n-way communication channel.
  • Secondly, despite what people say, even just using morse code people were able to create deep and meaningful relationships ‘online’.
  • Thirdly, the community (and particularly the bosses of the telegraph operators) were worried how this technology was corrupting employees.

If this interests you, also think about the humble postcard as a social technology.