The Victorian Internet: The Remarkable Story of the Telegraph and the Nineteenth Century's On-Line Pioneers
Author: Tom Standage
Publisher: New York: Berkley Publishing Group, 1998
Review Published: April 2002
Tom Standage's The Victorian Internet is a pleasure to read. Standage's fluid prose, engaging style, and eye for a good story make it a great choice for bedtime reading. The book sits nicely amidst other examples of a growing cultural-history-for-mass-consumption genre that has its own space on my shelf. By all measures, The Victorian Internet is a stimulating book. But if you are already familiar with telegraph history, this book will not offer any new knowledge. If you are familiar with the philosophical questions raised by the history of technology, this book will not offer much in the way of a new perspective. Standage is right that the history of telegraphy can teach us much about our own engagement with the Internet today, but others made this point before him (and with greater depth and precision). At the end of this essay, I list a few of the historical and philosophical treatments of the telegraph that I have found particularly interesting or useful, in case you are curious. But as you'll see, most of those books are of a more academic sort. None of them will get a blurb from William Gibson or a review in Forbes Magazine, as Standage has managed to do.
Standage has clearly reached a much wider audience than the academic historians and philosophers of technology who preceded him. In the sense that it has been widely read where the academic histories have not, The Victorian Internet is a very important book. As Standage makes clear in his title, the book is part of a larger cultural process of retelling our technological history in light of so-called "new" media. A retelling can repeat a story, or it can transform the story. Standage does a little of both.
If you don't know your telegraph history, this book will offer you an introduction to many of the standard tropes and stories. With eloquence and style, Standage offers its broad contours and the received cultural-historical wisdom. You will learn that the telegraph as we know it is really the electrical telegraph, and that it was preceded by a host of mechanical telegraph systems, dating back thousands of years. You will learn about the battles among inventors like Samuel Morse and his British counterparts Cooke and Wheatstone as they fought for patents and credit. Along the way you'll encounter other well-known figures in the history of invention: a speedy and creative telegraph operator by the name of Thomas Edison; and Alexander Graham Bell, who called his most famous invention an "improvement in telegraphy." Standage's history of invention is usefully international in scope; he tracks developments in the U.S., Britain, France, and Germany.
Standage devotes many pages to the technical details of telegraphy in order to bring the system back to life, as it were. You will learn how different telegraphs worked, how the typical telegraph office worked and what kinds of challenges companies and inventors faced in building a transatlantic telegraph. Standage wisely notes that like our own Internet, the Victorian Internet was not a single technology, but an amalgamation of different technologies, all working together: "a patchwork of telegraph networks, submarine cables, pneumatic tube systems, and messengers combined to deliver messages within hours over vast areas of the globe" (101).
He shows that the electrical telegraph met with great skepticism from interested and disinterested observers. In its earliest days, potential financiers did not believe that it would work. For instance, when Morse came to the U.S. Congress in 1842 to ask for funding, a group of skeptical senators tried to kill the bill by attaching to it an amendment calling for an equal amount of funding to be spent on Mesmerism (46). In fact, there was an enduring connection between telegraphy and mysticism in the popular imagination. But that is another story (see Peters 1999 and Sconce 2000).
Even after the telegraph was long established, people still wondered about the workings of the system. For instance, some people mistook the physical form of the message for the telegraphic message itself, believing that the slips of paper on which messages were written actually physically passed through the telegraph lines "like peas through a pea shooter" (66).
Standage also devotes a great deal of space to predictions for the telegraph's social impact. He considers the different ways in which people responded to and made use of the telegraph. He notes the utopian predictions: telegraphy would solve the world's problems, bring humanity together, end hunger and sorrow, and usher in a new age of communication and prosperity. He writes about trust and deception on the telegraph lines: telegraphic weddings and lovers deceived over the lines; proprietary codes and telegraphic hackers; schemes for quick profit and international scandals.
But none of this directly explains the Internet comparison and tie-in. I have cast The Victorian Internet as a well-written and accessible version of the received telegraph history. But what's so Internet about it?
Standage's preferred answer is the one most popular among cultural historians of technology, and it comes at the end of the book. Today's stories about the impact of the Internet are more or less the same stories that the telegraph's contemporaries told about its social impact. We are repeating history and we don't even know it: "The internet -- despite being regarded as the quintessentially modern means of communication -- has the most in common with its telegraphic ancestor" (205). Among the similarities are: networking, the use of standardized protocols for transmission of messages, popular responses of hype and skepticism, scams and moneymaking schemes, secret codes and their decryption, a unique jargon, hostility between old users and new ones, a fascination with the erotic possibilities of the technology, new business practices, and business bankrolling the expansion of the medium for commercial purposes (205-210). Beyond noting the existence of these parallels, he doesn't really explain their significance. Are they important because telegraphy becomes a kind of model or rehearsal for the Internet? Are they important because some of the lessons learned during the development of the telegraph were applied to the Internet? Do they offer some kind of philosophical lesson?
At the end, Standage offers one answer but it is a letdown: the hype, skepticism, changes in values, new forms of crime, and new business practices were "only to be expected. They are direct consequences of human nature, rather than technology" (212). Here we have the historian's standard refutation of technological determinism. People make history with machines; machines do not make our history for us. True enough. But Standage begs the larger question posed by his move: if, as he says, the telegraph's story is really about human nature and not about technology, then what insight does he offer into human nature? This is where I am troubled by the book.
For Standage, the most important and illuminating parallel is in the utopianism surrounding the technologies when they were new. He writes that because it could link distant people, "the telegraph was the first technology to be seized upon as a panacea. Given its potential to change the world, the telegraph was soon being hailed as a means of solving the world's problems. It failed to do so, of course -- but we have been pinning the same hopes on other new technologies ever since" (211).
This is not really accurate. Immediately before the electrical telegraph, similar hopes were pinned on railroads and steam power (Schivelbusch 1986; Carey 1988). Even print and the postal system had their day in the sun as technologies vested with utopian hopes (Warner 1990; John 1995). If one considers telegraphy as a form of communication first and a technology second, then the hope that communication will solve our problems goes back to Plato and St. Augustine, for whom speech and transparency in mutual understanding -- soul sharing -- led the way to philosophical and religious salvation (Peters 1999). There is a very long history of people investing their hopes in the transformative power of communication and the transformative power of technology.
Precedence aside, Standage is right to note a strong parallel between the rhetorics that surrounded the telegraph and those that surround the Internet today (and even more so in the 1990s, when he wrote the book). He quotes MIT savants Michael Dertouzos and Nicholas Negroponte echoing 19th century visions of technological utopia in their claims that the Internet will bring about world peace and the end of nation-states.
If it didn't work for the telegraph, what are today's prophets of technology really up to? Standage argues that the telegraph's precedent undermines contemporary claims for the utopian possibilities of the Internet. "That the telegraph was so widely seen as a panacea is perhaps understandable. The fact that we are still making the same mistake today is less so" (211). Standage paints the problem as one of "chronocentricity": the egotism that our generation is "poised on the cusp of history. Today, we are repeatedly told that we are in the midst of a communications revolution. Yet the electric telegraph was, in many ways, far more disconcerting for the inhabitants of the time than today's advances are for us. If any generation has the right to claim that it bore the full bewildering, world-shrinking brunt of such a revolution, it is not us -- it is our nineteenth-century forbearers" (213). True enough. Our inability to fully comprehend our own future leads us to delusions of grandeur. Every generation is, in that sense, "poised on the cusp of history" simply because it doesn't know what will happen next.
So the moral of the story, Standage argues, is that we have seen the communications revolution before, and it was bigger the first time. All of this language of "newness" surrounding the Internet is, well, not all that new. On this point, Standage may not be very original, but he is completely right. This was an even more important point in 1998, when the book came out, because of the delirium then surrounding the Internet as a "new" technology. Even today, many writers and academics still accept the idea that the Internet will change the world and solve social problems all by itself. So Standage's history is a useful corrective to the marketing hype.
But what do we do with that knowledge? Standage offers no suggestions. He is, as he says, at a loss to explain why we are using the same language to describe our inventions that the Victorians used to describe theirs. This is because Standage's cultural, philosophical, and political analyses do not go very deep. He is primarily interested in telling a story, but there is more to the story than he tells. If the purpose of his story (as he suggests at the end) is to debunk our contemporary hubris, it is only fair to ask: "to what end?" Otherwise, we are left with debunking for the sake of debunking. No, the Internet will not save us, but so what?
For all his overtures to cultural history, Standage's book ends with a clandestine progress narrative. And if I dare say so, his willingness to perpetuate the cult of inventor-heroes like Thomas Edison (and by logical extension modern counterparts like Steve Jobs) didn't hurt when the book got reviewed in the business press. The inventors financed by the telegraph boom would "eventually lead to the demise of the telegraph and the community that had grown up around it; for any industry founded on a particular technology faces the danger that a new invention will render it obsolete" (180). Telephones, radios, television, cars, and many other inventions would, he writes, dethrone telegraphy from its spot at the zenith of modern media. For Standage, the technological history between telegraphy and the Internet is nothing more than serial regicide. The king's head is repeatedly chopped off, but another always grows in its place.
In the end, inventions are the agents of Standage's history, even if they do get a little help from their human friends: new inventions come along to overthrow old ones. Read through the lens of our contemporary fear of finitude, this is something of a tragic tale. But the real pathos is that for Standage, our chronocentricity essentially dooms us to repeat history. Karl Marx's famed adage that history appears the first time as tragedy and the second time as farce seems all the more powerful at the end of Standage's tale. The telegraph didn't save us, and now we pin our hopes on the Internet. Silly humans!
But it is not that simple. Standage should have parsed the farce. And he should have parsed the "we" that is constantly invoked in his history. The "we" of Standage's history represents a group of people disposed to believe in the transformative power of technology, and maybe even a group (like the readers of Wired, Forbes, and William Gibson) who have a vocational interest in getting other people to invest in the transformative power of technology. The "we" of the telegraph did not constitute the entire society, and neither does today's "we" of the Internet. In this sense, any technology is part of a society, but no single technology suffuses all of a society. Every technological system, the Victorian Internet and our own Internet, has an inside and an outside.
When Standage says "we" and means "people disposed to care about or believe in the Internet," he is still talking about (and to) a relative elite. Make no mistake, as someone who works in the university system, I count myself among those "disposed to care about the Internet." But it makes a difference that my interest in new media is not a universal phenomenon. If there is a group with more interest and investment in the medium, and another group with more control over the development of a medium, then we shouldn't be surprised when the medium is consciously developed in ways that are designed to suit the needs and mores of these groups -- even if medium is promoted using a language of universalism. Elites have been known to falsely promote their interests as everyone's interests. It's not a sure bet, as Standage is doubtlessly aware: technologies sometimes turned out very differently than their developers had planned. Sometimes they didn't even work; other times they didn't work as planned. In this way, technologies are not much different from meals or parties. We go in with the best of intentions and high hopes. Sometimes they go well; sometimes they do not; and sometimes they completely surprise us.
There is a complex dance of desire, ambivalence, and possibility in the ongoing process of technological change. The telegraph connected the continents because its makers wanted the continents connected. But it could not unite people across continents who actively resisted being united. Nationalism was not a technical problem, though it has technical dimensions. Moreover, inventions do not simply respond to necessity or fulfill our desires in some conscious or rational way. Far from it!
Standage is right to note cultural ambivalence about the telegraph: there were hopes and fears, optimists and skeptics. But there was also ambivalence in the hopes themselves. It is hard to know what to wish for, and the Victorian counterparts of today's middle class had the same dilemma that the Internet poses to us today. We are not simply concerned with what good it will do, but also, what good it should do. To this more difficult question, Standage does not offer much of an answer. His critique of utopian discourse falls flat for me because he has not really confronted the difficult questions of power and hope raised in the age of the telegraph . . . or in our own age.
Many other cultural histories written for "popular" consumption have managed to look beyond the standard historical narratives and ask the difficult questions about power and hope that are missing here. Richard Rosenfeld's American Aurora uses a forgotten newspaper to offer a different take on the early United States. Even if we limit ourselves to histories that involve technologies, Standage has models available to him: Barbara Ehrenrich and Diedre English's For Her Own Good chronicles 150 years' worth of expert advice and medical treatment of women. Ruth Cowan's More Work for Mother tells how improvements in household technology have helped reduce drudgery -- but not domestic labor. These three books, and many others like them, challenge or rework the available historical record in order to get us to think anew about the legacy of the past in the present, and the possibilities for change in the future. In contrast, and possibly because the hype and novelty of the Internet was so overwhelming when he wrote, Standage winds up simply arguing that there is a history.
Our endless engagement with technologies -- right on down to the ways we use our own bodies -- defines us as social beings. Standage is right: it is ridiculous to see technology as something inhuman, as something that comes from outside culture or society to change it -- all the more because we've heard it all before. But it is wise to see the shortcomings of a present world, to work to change it or shape it, and to treat technology as a part of our world worth the trouble of philosophy and politics. Through its use of history as analogy, The Victorian Internet does a fine job of debunking the utopianism surrounding today's new media. But the book only gives us brief glimpses of the philosophical and political troubles raised by telegraphy. It does not take the next step after debunking. As a result, The Victorian Internet only hints at the difficult philosophical and political questions entangled with "our" Internet.
Cowan, Ruth Scwartz. More Work for Mother: The Ironies of Household Technology from the Open Hearth to the Microwave. New York: Basic Books, 1983.
Carey, James. Communication as Culture: Essays on Media and Society. Boston: Unwin Hyman, 1988.
Ehrenreich, Barbara and Dierdre English. For Her Own Good: 150 Years of Expert's Advice to Women. New York: Anchor Books, 1989.
John, Richard R. Spreading the News: The American Postal System from Franklin to Morse. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1995.
Peters, John Durham. Speaking Into the Air: A History of Idea of Communication. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999.
Rosenfeld, Richard. American Aurora: The Suppressed History of Our Nation's Beginnings and the Heroic Newspaper that Tried to Report it. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1997.
Schivelbusch, Wolfgang. The Railway Journey: The Industrialization of Time and Space in the 19th Century. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1986.
Sconce, Jeffrey. Haunted Media: Electronic Presence from Telegraphy to Television. Durham: Duke University Press, 2000.
Warner, Michael. The Letters of the Republic: Publication and the Public Sphere in Eighteenth-Century America. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1990.
For Further Reading on Telegraphy:
Blondheim, Menahem. News Over the Wires: The Telegraph and the Flow of Public Information in America, 1844-1897. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1994.
Czitrom, Daniel. Media and the American Mind: From Morse to McLuhan. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1982.
Lubar, Steven. Infoculture. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press.
Marvin, Carolyn. When Old Technologies Were New: Thinking About Electrical Communication in the Late Nineteenth Century. New York: Oxford University Press, 1988.
Shiers, George. The Telegraph: An Historical Anthology. New York: Arno Press, 1977.
Solymar, Laszlo. Getting the Message: A History of Communications. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.
Jonathan Sterne is an assistant professor of Communication at the University of Pittsburgh and an editor of Bad Subjects: Political Education for Everyday Life (http://eserver.org/bs/). He has written widely on the history and philosophy of communication technology, and his book, The Audible Past: Cultural Origins of Sound Reproduction (Duke University Press) will appear in Fall of 2002. He can be reached at (email@example.com) and found at (http://www.pitt.edu/~jsterne/).
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