Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Monday, February 07, 2011

An Interconnected World

Jake over at Roma Locuta Est has been blogging about Neil Postman's Amusing Ourselves to Death and has up an interesting post on how the telegraph changed the world.
With the telegraph, for the first time in human history, the communication of information was not limited by geographical distance:
“The new idea was that transportation and communication could be disengaged from each other, that space was not an inevitable constrain on the movement of information” (Postman 64).

This, as Postman shows, radically changed public discourse and the way that people came to think of communication in general. Quoting Henry David Thoreau,
“We are in great haste to construct a magnetic telegraph from Main to Texas; but Maine and Texas, it may be, have nothing important to communicate. ... We are eager to tunnel under the Atlantic and bring the old world some weeks nearer to the new; but perchance the first news that will leak through into the broad flapping American ear will be that Princess Adelaide has the whooping cough” (quoted in Postman, 65).
The production of communication across vast distances introduced three negative changes in to public discourse: irrelevance, impotence, and incoherence. All three are made possible by the disassociation of content from context that is inherent to telegraphy. This is what Postman calls “context-free information”:
“[T]he value of information need not be tied to any function it might serve in social and political decision-making and action, but may attach merely to its novelty, interest, and curiosity. The telegraph made information into a commodity, a ‘thing’ that could be bought and sold irrespective of its uses or meaning” (Postman, 65).
Once the partnership between the telegraph and the press was forged, things would never be the same:
“Only four years after Morse opened the nation’s first telegraph line on May 24, 1844, the Associated Press was founded, and news from nowhere, addressed to no one in particular, began to criss-cross the nation. Wars, crimes, crashes, fires, floods - much of it the social and political equivalent of Adelaide’s whooping cough - became the content of what people called ‘the news of the day’” (Postman, 67).
Thoreau, as it turn out, was a bit of a prophet, for telegraphy did make “relevance irrelevant.”
“A man in Main and a man in Texas could converse, but not about anything either of them knew or cared very much about. The telegraph may have made the country into ‘one neighborhood,’ but it was a peculiar one, populated by strangers who knew nothing but the most superficial facts about each other” (Postman, 67).
It strikes me that in a sense the critique of the sort of small-bite information from far away is primarily applicable to personal interaction. It is not of any immediate interest to me to know what some blogger or facebooker in Singapore is having for lunch and so if I read a great many posts and tweets and status updates from far away I am, in a sense, awash in information inapplicable to my life.

However, this becomes less the case when we turn to other types of information. For instance, one of the first things that the telegraph was put to use for was creating truly global commodity exchanges. Prior to the telegraph, it took the speed of surface transport to find out the prices of goods in far away places. So, for instance, Australia might be harvesting wheat, but grain buyers in London couldn't know the price of wheat in Australia until a ship from Australia actually arrived in England, but which point the situation in Australia would have changed.

With the advent of near instantaneous global communication via trans-oceanic telegraphs, a London commodity broker could find the current offered prices of commodities in North and South America, in South Africa, in India and in Australia, and he could make purchases from a distance by considering the cheapest sources versus the necessary transport time and costs.

In a sense, this made events far away far more relevant than they had been before. In the Middle Ages, people might tell stories about Prester John in the distant East, but such stories were necessarily of no practical impact to people's lives.

However, with the coming of the telegraph, and other, later forms of high speed communication, the personal details of people's lives far away might remain of interest only in terms of idle curiosity, but many events far away actually did come to have a huge impact of people's lives in a commercial and economic sense. If the crop was bad on the other side of the world, local prices would go up as farmers shipped their grain overseas to where it commanded the best price. If a bumper crop came in abroad, prices fell and farmers worried about their ability to make a profit at market. This global commodity economy, made possible by the telegraph, resulted in the UK getting the majority of its grain from overseas by 1900 -- from sources as various as Canada, the US, Argentina and Australia.

With addition of high speed transport we've arrived at a place in which a volcanic eruption in Iceland can empty grocery stores in the UK and put flower and vegetable pickers in Kenya out of work.

So while it's true that mass instant communication makes it possible for us to swim in a sea of information of little import to our real lives, it has at the same time actually made our lives far more intimately connected with what goes on far away.


Jake Tawney said...

So, actually Postman (and myself) would not claim that nothing good comes form the telegraph (or the photograph or even the television). He is no Luddite, and it is obvious from my own web presence that neither am I. The point remains that the telegraph did its part to change what we consider as "communication," "information," and even "relationship." (As did the television, internet, etc.) The awareness of this fact is essential - we must think deeply about simple things, understanding the no technology is ever value-netural but rathe profoundly changes our sense of reality. Even something as simply as a clock (which I wrote about a couple weeks ago) does this, though we certainly don't want to argue that the clock has never given us anything good. The same would even be true of Facebook.

Postman ties the irrelevance, impotence, and incoherence of information not simply to the telegraph, but also to the fact that it became married to the news agencies. This seems to support Darwin's point in his post.

Fascinating stuff!

Darwin said...

Fair point.

I think what I'd wanted to be clear on was that, perhaps contra Thoreau, the telegraph more served to make those far away relevant than to allow the transmission of irrelevance. But then, perhaps one of the patterns here is that often the most socially obvious results of a technology are not the ones that actually have the greatest impact. I'm not sure many people realize how much of a global economy had sprung up by 1890, as a result of the telegraph.

I would imagine that similar things are the case today. Most of the actual traffic on the internet is social chatter -- just as most telegraph messages were social communication -- but the greatest impact to our lives is probably the way in which it changes the global trade network. Which perhaps just underlines that we should be intentional about how we allow it to change our more social lives.