I was off work earlier this week, and took the chance to read Tom Standage’s book The Victorian Internet, about the invention, rapid development, and eventual decline of the telegraph in the 19th century. The book is a decade old now, but the data are still staggering: within 30 years of the first electronic telegraph messages, there were 650,000 miles of wire globally, 30,000 miles of submarine cable, and 20,000 towns and cities were connected. A message could be sent from London to Bombay (as it was then known), and a reply received, within four minutes. More resonant, though, was Standage’s litany towards the end of the utopian effects attributed to to the telegraph and most subsequent technologies.
The telegraph was the first technology which – because of the distance it encompassed – prompted determinist ideas that the techology itself might be a source of social improvement.”It was soon being hailed as a means of solving the world’s problems”. writes Standage. And soon after, so was electricity (which would, by eliminating drudgery, create a world of abundance and peace).
Aircraft, he observes,
inspired similar flights of fancy: rapid intercontinental air travel would, it was claimed, eliminate international differences and misunderstandings. … Similarly television was expected to improve education, reduce social isolation, and enhance democracy.
Nuclear power, coming forwards into the 20th century, was going to usher in an era of abundance in which electricity would be ‘too cheap to meter’.
Of course, utopian claims have been made for the internet. And although Standage doesn’t make the case, similar claims were also made for other 20th century communications technologies. Almost seventy years ago Bertolt Brecht argued – in a talk on radio as a means of communication – that ‘radio should be converted from a distribution system to a communication system’. Indeed, almost everything said in his short article, including the observation that his proposal ‘seems utopian’, has also been said about the internet. And, just to be thoroughly depressing, was also said of cable television when it first burst onto the media landscape in north America.
What to make of this repeated pattern? Well, one could just say that we are deluded optimists, and leave it at that. There is something delusional here, certainly; Standage describes it as ‘chronocentricity’, or the notion that ‘one’s own generation is poised on the cusp of history’. And of course, for every utopian, there is usually a dystopian to be found, predicting new opportunities for crime from a technology.
But as an undeluded optimist – one who imagines he combines pessimism of the spirit with optimism of the will – it is possible to believe that there is something more subtle going on here. Each of these technologies opened up new possibilities which were only partially realised. Television, as Raymond Williams once observed, allowed us to see as much drama in a week as an Elizabethan would have seen in a lifetime, even if it has also enriched Simon Cowell. The telegraph was recuperated quickly into automated provision and centralised control of business, but created moments when different countries shared common achievements. Radio has, in the age of the mobile phone, become the means of communication which Brecht hoped for, and sometimes with radicalising effects.
Technologies of themselves don’t create social transformation. But they open up spaces in which we can – sometimes only fleetingly – imagine the possibilities of transformation for ourselves.