Thursday, December 25, 2003

Lessons from Telegraphy

I've at last got around to reading Tom Standage's delightful 1998 book, "The Victorian Internet: The Remarkable Story of the Telegraph and the Nineteenth Century's On-line Pioneers." It's a remarkably instructive read, even though it doesn't dwell as much on telegraphy's bubbles and financial failures as it would've done if it had been written after the dot-com bust.

By nature, I tend to resist claims that today and its technology is somehow different from earlier times, and Standage's book provides ample evidence that continuity and similarity is much more marked that revolution and change.

Telegraphy was arguably the first technology that inspired dreams of tech-driven utopia, notably claims of world peace. A toast was proposed at the celebration of the completion of the 1858 trans-Atlantic cable to "the telegraph wire, the nerve of international life, transmitting knowledge of events, removing causes of misunderstanding, and prompting peace and harmony throughout the world." For comparison, Standage quotes Michael Dertouzos gushing in a 1997 book that the digital networks as a "common bond reached through electronic proximity may help stave off future flare-ups of ethnic hatred and national break-ups." The telegraph didn't seem to help much staving off the Crimean War, the First and Second World Wars, and Korea, let alone Balkan tragedy that followed the break-up of Yugoslavia.

The sociology of both telegraphy and the Internet are remarkably similar: wild-eyed entrepreneurs most of whom lose all their investors' money, a meritocracy of operators who create a newbie-hostile community, and huffy academics who provide a theoretical basis for the technology and spend the later years in a snit that they are being ignored and not sufficiently recognized, and big companies that emerge to monopolize key parts of the business

Old technology often out-performs the new stuff in unexpected ways. Jim Gray has pointed out that the best way to send terabytes around is to ship computers housing inexpensive disks. The same thing happened with Telegraphy. Standage reports that due to line congestion, "Some telegraph companies tried employing additional messenger boys to carry bundles of messages along busy routs from one telegraph station to another -- a distance of only a few hundred yards in many cases. With enough messages in a bundle, this method was quicker than retelegraphing them." This led to development of pneumatic tube message delivery systems: pipes along which tubes carrying paper messages were pulled (eventually pushed) by air pressure.

Any technology will be used for communication, and all communication will be put at the service of, um, romance. The telegraph had its own tradition of on-line romances and long-distance weddings.

Governments will always attempt to control and monitor the flow of information. In recent years we've seen the escrow wars over the Clipper chip; in Victorian times, many governments forbad the use of ciphers by the public.

More interesting for me, because it goes against my nature, is to identify differences between today and yesterday's technologies:

Disintermediation: Most people could only use the telegraph indirectly - one had to use work through a system of messengers and wire operators. Today's network is pretty much directly accessible to anyone with a PC.

Ubiquity: Telegraphy was known by all, but wasn't used on a daily basis by one and all. The Internet is accessible in most middle class homes, and libraries in most developed countries. The technologies to use it -- PC's and phones -- are widely owned.

Globalism: Telegraph networks started in Europe as national systems, and internetwork connections only emerged gradually. The companies that operated the networks, likewise, were national monopolies. Today's monopolies and standards are global, though powerful regions and countries (e.g. Europe vs. Microsoft, and China vs. Wi-Fi and 3G) are doing all they can to resist them.

Most instructive of all, one should ponder the lessons that can be drawn from telegraphy and applied to today's emerging communications technologies.

Expect the usual hype, conflict, and commercialization: see the list of similarities above. Also expect the public to become blasé about the technology remarkably quickly.

In particular, don't expect utopia. The Internet and global web services won't make nationalism go away. The seemingly more global quality of this generation of technology may put its vendors on a more equal footing in conflicts with nation states, but I doubt that pride in the peculiarities of a culture will wash away in a generation. Nationalism and regionalism in Europe, for example, is more marked now than a century ago, the Internet will do as much, and probably more, to foster diversity as to erase it.

Watch out for discontinuities that look like continuities. Telephony emerged from attempts to multiplex more channels onto a single wire -- the "harmonic telegraph". Elisha Gray, who was working on a system very like Alexander Graham Bell's, ignored Bell's telephony patents at first because his lawyers advised him that the phone was a by-product in the race to build a harmonic telegraph. Indeed, Bell's 1876 patent is entitled "Improvements in Telegraphy". Voice over IP looks like just another application that runs on the net, but it may emerge as a distinct technology. Sure, it runs over IP; but both telegraphy and telephony ran over wires.

If there's a community of whackos buzzing around an emerging technology, one of them is sure to get it right sooner or later. You can't tell who it'll be (Morse made his name as a painter), and early success is no guarantee that they'll get it right next time (William Cooke, the British co-inventor of telegraphy, failed in all his subsequent attempts at invention and frittered away his fortune).

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