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The Victorian Internet

April 28, 2001: This message was distributed by Papyrus News. Feel free to forward this message to others, preferably with this introduction. For info on Papyrus News, including how to (un)subscribe or access archives, see <>.

I'd like to recommend the book, _The Victorian Internet_, by Tom Standage. It's a colorful, well-written history of the telegraph.

First lesson to be gleaned from this book (and all potential authors take note): its wonderful title. Keep your titles short, to the point, and interesting. Try to draw out in just a few words the main point of your book. If you feel the need to say more, add a sub-title.

In this case, the short title nicely conveys the main point of interest of this book, that it provides a parallel to thinking about the kinds of social changes being brought by the Internet. The book tells stories of how the telegraph brought out 19th versions of online romances, online crime, new kinds of journalism and diplomacy, etc.

Standage makes the case that the shift brought about by the telegraph was in some ways more dramatic than that of the Internet since, before the telegraph, there was really no way to send a message at a long distance faster than means of transportation (e.g., a ship, train, or horse) could carry it. (Though Standage does report on some of the interesting non-transport predecessors to the telegraph, e.g., through visual signals sent from hill to hill.)

For me the book raises a broader issue, which is what do information and communication technologies encompass and when did the ICT era start? I would suggest there are four different ways to think about the technological scope of ICT

  1. the Internet
  2. computers and telecommunications
  3. all "modern" electronic media, also including radio and television
  4. all electric and electronic communications, dating back to the telegraph

One way to think about it is this: a thousand years from now, when people look back on the revolutions in human communication, will ICT make the short list that until now has included language, writing, and print? And, if so, what will this fourth stage be called, and by what invention will it be remembered?


Mark Warschauer

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Last updated: April 29, 2001 in Hot Metal Pro 6.0