Internet of Happiness

Are we really happier for instantaneous news?  Has the internet brought us paroxysms of ecstasy with the quality of information?  Wouldn’t you just rather wait?  I don’t think we should go to extremes, or go backward.  Samuel Morse, it is said, developed the telegraph in part because he was away from home and only found out about his wife’s death after her burial, for which he could not return in time.  More rapid communication was necessary and the telegraph provided the means.  No, I’m not suggesting that happiness lies in being uninformed, but perhaps I lingered long enough among the Episcopalians so as to believe in the via media, the middle way.  Some of the happiest times of my life have been spent without a screen glowing in my face.  There is, however, good stuff here.

One example is blogging.  I wish I had more time to read blogs.  Verbomania, for example, showcases writing that sparkles.  The weekly posts set me up for a good weekend.  There are many more that I could name as well—and for me blogging has become a way of life.  Marketers call it “platform building” but I think of it as fun.  And the practice I get writing this blog daily has made my books much more user-friendly.  A family friend with no college education tried to read Weathering the Psalms, with “tried” being the operative word.  There’s no comparison with Holy Horror.  (Weathering the Psalms was written to be my “tenure book,” and it may well be my last technical monograph.)  I have this avocation of blogging to thank for that.

But instantaneous news—does it make us happier?  Sometimes perhaps, but often the opposite.  It’s a phenomenon I call the internet of unhappiness.  (There’s a whole field of study emerging called “the internet of things,” which, no matter how much I ponder I just can’t comprehend.)  News, after all, tends to focus on negatives, as if there’s too much happiness in our lives.  Just yesterday there were early morning helicopters hovering not far from where I live.  Within seconds I could learn of some kind of domestic dispute about which I’d otherwise have been none the wiser.  The next few hours I spent occasionally reloading the page for updates.  They didn’t make me happy.  Add to that the three-ring sideshow that the American government has become and you’ll soon be wanting just three channels from which to select before turning off the TV and going outside for a walk.  And when the 1970s start to look like happy times, you go to your closet and start digging for the semaphore flags.

They must be in here somewhere…

Slow to Travel

A family friend recently died.  I was in New York City when I received the news, and I mused how recent a phenomenon this speed of information is.  The news wasn’t necessarily a shock—this friend had been experiencing failing health, he was a close friend of my grandfather—but for some reason Samuel F. B. Morse came to mind.  The story goes that Morse invented the telegraph because of his experience of being away from home when his wife died.  By the time he received the news and was able to get home by the conveyance of the day, she’s already been buried.  He set his inventive mind to improving the speed of communication over a distance.  In these days of receiving texts mere seconds after something momentous happens, it’s difficult to imagine that for the vast majority of human existence, personal news traveled slowly.

Feeling in a reflective mood I recalled how when I was in college I wrote letters home.  Yes, the telephone existed by then—don’t be so cynical!—but long distance bore a cost and college students find ways to save their money for girlfriends or spending a weekend in Pittsburgh.  News traveled more slowly.  Back before Morse, the swiftest option was the letter.  The death of a friend might take days or weeks to reach those close.  Distance in time, as well as space, may not have lessened the shock, but the immediacy of a text wasn’t there.  The death had occurred days or weeks ago.  There was nothing left to do but grieve and get on with life.  Like Samuel Morse—perhaps the only point of comparison between us—I was unable to get away immediately.  New York City isn’t easy to escape quickly.

We move swiftly and slowly at the same time.  I know news moments from the event, but this physical mass I inhabit is sluggish takes some time to get around.  Manhattan’s an island, and although it’s not Styx we’re crossing, the Hudson creates barriers enough.  Now my journey includes crossing the entire state of New Jersey before I can even reach home.  Were I to drive back to my original home, it would add another five hours at least in the car.  Sometimes I wonder if the immediacy of knowing is a blessing or a curse.  The shock is immediate and visceral.  But like an injection, the sharpness is quickly over and the dull ache sets in.  Our family friend had been suffering for some time.  Now he’s at peace.  I like to think he’s with my granddad, and that the two of them together won’t judge me too harshly for moving so slowly.

Non-Fiction Steampunk

TheVictorianInternetThe 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.

The Tell-Tale Telegraph

Steampunk CityThere’s a guy next to me with a robotic arm. Women with lace umbrellas and aviator googles walk by on the arms of Victorian gentlemen with walking sticks. A couple have an effervescing water-cooled device on their backpacks. I must be in Steampunk City. The forecast had predicted rain, but it is a beautiful October day in Speedwell, New Jersey. Steampunk City, an event dreamed up by Jeff Mach to make money for local museums, draws in a good crowd of the garishly bedecked, causing my wife and me to feel desperately underdressed. I’ve read my share of steampunk fiction, and I am really thrilled to see so many people taking an interest in such a literary event. I did wonder, however, what demonology had to do with it. Kevin Meares of Delaware Valley Demonology Research is giving a talk on demons, and it’s interesting to notice how the light laughter of customers from the booths outside wafts through the door where stories of possession are being told.

It is difficult to listen to Mr. Meares and believe that he hasn’t seen some pretty strange things. A practicing demonologist rather than the armchair variety, he has accompanied priests on exorcisms and is utterly convinced of the reality of the entities. When asked where demons come from, he relies on the Bible and Bible lore. Either they are fallen angels, remnants of a prior creation (thus the discrepancy between Genesis 1 and 2), or the offspring of the Nephilim of Genesis 6. Whatever they are, he has seen them in the dark, and people have died because of their activity. Being somewhat of a skeptic, I still find myself a little creeped out, kind of wishing I was outside with the laughing, costumed fiction readers.

Steampunk is often about alternate realities. A world where technology developed in the fog of steam rather than the neat circuitry of electricity. Speedwell, ironically, (and probably intentionally) is where the telegraph was invented and first demonstrated. It is a key site in the Industrial Revolution, the development that made the modern world what it is with smart phones, air-light laptops, and iCloud. I’m in the basement of an historic building having my rational worldview threatened by stories of demons. Although I’m wearing my nonplused face, I know that things will be different in the middle of the night. I’ve got brass gears in my pockets and supernatural entities in my head. I’ve met a watch maker outside who translates Aramaic manuscripts. What hath God wrought indeed, Mr. Morse? Yes, I’m in an alternate universe, and I may decide not to come back to the work-a-day one after all.