The histories of Tom Standage approach familiar things from unfamiliar angles. Being interested in Steampunk, and a daily user of the internet who has trouble recalling what life was like before then, I found The Victorian Internet fascinating. Subtitled The Remarkable Story of the Telegraph and the Nineteenth Century’s On-line Pioneers, the story of the wiring of the world did resonate in any almost eerie way to the early days of the world-wide web. Despite my disclaimer, I do recall those days clearly when the only way someone could get in touch with you immediately was the telephone, and you had to be at home for it to work. Prior to the telegraph, news traveled even slower and you could go months without hearing from those closest to you, if they happened to be away. Samuel F. B. Morse knew that first-hand, as Standage tells it. His wife died while he was out of town, and although he rushed back right away upon hearing, she had been buried before he reached her. Such was life when news arrived only by letter. Morse was among those who invented the telegraph, a device that made the world realize that yes, it was possible to send information to distant places almost instantly. It soon become a wired world.
Standage is also more circumspect than some writers who declare, with breathless awe, that some new device will cure the world’s ills. Showing how the telegraph generated much the same hyperbole as the internet (that peace would reign now that people could communicate instantly, that technology had brought a miraculous rapprochement, etc.) he notes that people remained people. Wars continued—intensified, in fact, into World War One where technology was devoted to destruction. People had always been able to kill each other. Now they could do it faster, and in more hideous ways. Still, there’s no denying that once the idea of instant communication caught on that we would continue to develop it rapidly. You never need be away from a network that covers much of the developed world and you can talk on your phone from deep under the Hudson River to the top of the Empire State Building. You can order a pizza from anywhere.
Ironically, Morse dedicated part of his earnings to endow a lectureship concerning how science related to the Bible. It was clear that technology had achieved the impossible (okay, well, the improbable) and yet, Victorian society still relied on the truths contained in Scripture. The telegraph, which began with the words, “What hath God wrought,” ended with the attempt to figure out how the Bible fit into all this. Just because humans had crossed the great barriers of oceans with electric cables didn’t mean the Almighty was out of a job. Even today God can be found on the internet. Along with many other choices of distraction and business. God is not so much dead as commodified. The difference between Morse’s day and ours was that then they knew that the Bible impacted daily life. It continues to do so today, but we’ve become too sophisticated to give it much of a nod. We might be well served, however, to look back once in a while as well as to look forward. We might be surprised at how little things have changed.