Thursday, December 21, 2006

News Travels Faster and Faster

Ever since there have been people, there have been people sitting around talking. The best they could do at first to leave a legacy of ideas, though, was to create stories, legends, and myths, and maybe draw some pictures in a cave.

Before Iraq was Iraq, it was the place where people first learned to use writing. We probably needed to learn to write, because for the first time in all of human history, as far as we can tell, we'd found a place where we could grow more food than we needed. I use "we" without any remorse for the presumption, because I have always had a fondness for the Mesopotamians.

Each advance in technology, whether it was the use of new pigments to draw, the invention of writing itself, or the application of a new technique in transmission, has led to an explosion in interpersonal or mass communication. Each of these metaphorical explosions had no less impact on politics than the changes brought on by the musket, carbine rifle, or the explosion of a different kind at Los Alamos. I've thought about this off and on for years, but a recent kerfuffle involving George Will has led me to write about it.

Writing and use of the wheel led to a civilization which could support "knowledge workers" such as priests, poets, writers, and philosophers, There arose an educated class, who could read and write, allowing them to put their ideas in a compact, tangible form. The information could be copied, quoted, and most importantly, transported and spread. Once it could be saved beyond a single individual's ability to recall it, knowledge began to expand exponentially, and hasn't stopped since.

With the advent of parchment and various forms of paper, the educated class had a medium they could quickly obtain, transport, and reuse. People wrote letters to one another, developing the techniques of logic and rhetoric more finely than had been possible without easy access to a semi-permanent medium. Books were written on scrolls, copied by hand, and gathered into libraries. The volume of information had again experienced a rapid increase over the previous era. Their writings are still influential today.

With the arrival of movable type in the 15th century, a new medium brought knowledge to the masses as never before: newspapers and books became accessible to the growing number of the literati. By 1600 in England, for instance, 30% of men and 10% of women could read. At the end of 18th century, pamphleteers were toppling governments.

It should be noted, also, that the pamphleteers had a tradition of quoting each other, copying each other's work, and carrying on public debates on issues great and small. It doesn't take much to liken their activity to the blogs of today. The local newspapers of the day were part of the same culture and information exchange. Again, the information flow exploded.

But in the mid-19th century, a new development would change the way people communicated. The symbiotic development of railroads and the telegraph caused an explosion of news and information like never before.

Railroads were very inefficient and difficult without a means of scheduling the trains. If a train stalled, or derailed, or had any other problem, then sending another train down that track would multiply the problem, and possibly cause a disaster. But with the telegraph, operators could communicate from station to station, and scheduling became manageable.

The railroads also allowed the spread of the telegraph, which had an impact far beyond simply scheduling rail service. Telegraph lines were run on railroad rights of way, because that is how people travelled. When a line needed repair, the train was the way to get to the trouble. Telegraph offices were usually housed inside the train station.

But the telegraph also allowed news to spread faster than it ever had before. Rather than taking several days for news to spread from the East coast of the U.S., the telegraph allowed it to move as fast as it could be signalled. Before the railroad, moving a person several hundred of miles could take a week; by rail, that journey was shortened to a day, or even over night.

News became news all over all at once. Instead of stories sweeping the nation over the course of several days or weeks, the railroad allowed newspapers and magazines to be printed in large cities and delivered rapidly across the country. The telegraph allowed news to flow bidirectionally between the big city news organizations and their stringers in the small towns and other cities. Reporters could travel to cover stories like never before.

The news explosion of 1840-1860 was fueled in no small part by the continuation of the Abolitionist movement. But while the abolition of slavery dominated political discussion, there were plenty of other topics at hand. I submit for consideration the celebrated essay by Ralph Waldo Emerson, Self-Reliance:

Familiar as the voice of the mind is to each, the highest merit we ascribe to Moses, Plato, and Milton is, that they set at naught books and traditions, and spoke not what men but what they thought. A man should learn to detect and watch that gleam of light which flashes across his mind from within, more than the lustre of the firmament of bards and sages. Yet he dismisses without notice his thought, because it is his. In every work of genius we recognize our own rejected thoughts: they come back to us with a certain alienated majesty. Great works of art have no more affecting lesson for us than this. They teach us to abide by our spontaneous impression with good-humored inflexibility then most when the whole cry of voices is on the other side. Else, tomorrow a stranger will say with masterly good sense precisely what we have thought and felt all the time, and we shall be forced to take with shame our own opinion from another.

If the conditions which drive bloggers to blog and surfers to read their musings changed in the intervening century and a half, I find it difficult to see a distinction therein. Emerson was a blogger.

And the undeniable impact that the rapid dissemination of the Lincoln-Douglas debates on the Presidential race of 1860, and of that election on the very structure of the United States, and of the United States on the world, cannot be denied.

The tradition of the small newspaper and the newsletter continued. Local editors continued to swap stories, including sections in their papers containing letters written ostensibly to the editor, but directed at the reader. An individual with no more tools than pen and paper could contest ideas with an entire town, State, or even the nation.

When telephone service became widespread, suddenly news could travel without the hand of a telegraph operator to slow it down. News began to come from everywhere. The muckrakers of the early 20th Century continued the traditions of the pamphleteers and small newspapers, adding and anti-establishment brand of justice-seeking that has carried forth into the present time.
Skipping over the developements in radio, ham radio (which really is more than a lot of talking about ham radio), and television, there arose a series of technological developments that was to radically magnify the volume, pace, and penetration of information flow. People began connecting computers together in networks. In parallel, the Internet's email and Usenet and Bulletin Board Systems linked people together in a way that made rapid communication possible. The number of interconnected system grew exponentially, sometimes doubling in size in just a few months.

The wars of today are won or lost on the information front as much as any other.

The story of social networking, Youtube, and whatever is after that, you know as well as I do. Whatever it is, if history is any guide, will lead to an explosion of information, and changes in politics, like we've never seen before. Again.

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