The 19th century notion that communication and transportation were intricately linked forms the foundation for a discussion about the history of new media. Many people today may find it difficult to understand this connection when one can telecommute to work, video chat with friends and family, interact with online communities, and be entertained all while sitting on the couch with a laptop on hand. Before this class, I had never thought of the connection between these two concepts. Yet the history of relaying information consists mostly of individuals physically moving from point to point.
The development of the telegraph, however, drastically changed the nature of communication. Prior to telegraphy, communication was seen as a “channel of movement” according to Popp (460). Czitrom describes the archaic form of communication as a “noun of action meaning to make common to many,” which extended to roads, canals and railroad tracks because they aided in the exchange of information and material (10). After Morse’s invention, the transportation element was cleaved from communication because information was able to be sent electronically. The joint nature of time and space was “annihilated,” allowing for an instantaneous flow of ideas over vast distances (Carey, 207). Cleary the separation of space and time has had a lasting effect on new media since the telegraph, from the telephone to the Internet.
However, linking the concepts of communication and transportation persisted in a different way because of the mutual benefit between telegraphy and the railroad industry. Commercially, buyers and sellers could communicate over the telegraph to coordinate business transactions that the railroads could then fulfill. Businesses across the country changed operating procedure as the nature of trade became dependent on the telegraph. Prices of goods became less dependent on local supply and demand, and price divergence declined as communication between cities grew stronger. Furthermore, goods began to be traded in the future as trading within a geographic space became unrestricted.
Business leaders were in favor of new technology because of the opportunities they presented. Any advantage a new technology gave to those involved with commerce could be exploited to make more money. Increased mobility, both with the goods themselves and electronic information, would provide an “historical rupture” leading to more commercial opportunities (Popp, 479). Most importantly, new technology provided the chance to sell products like radios and car, but the opportunity to create a future in which technology would be indispensable presented the best impetus for businesses.
Scheduling transactions, however, proved difficult in the early days of telegraphy because communities across the country set their own clocks. Carey explains the development of time zones came directly from the need to keep the trains moving on time. Coordination of the trains could be handled over the telegraph as long as local times were known.
The development of time zones was not the only change to everyday life brought on by new technology. Carey outlines the change in journalism brought on by telegraphy. Because sending too many words of the lines would cost more money, a new “stripped down” language began to appear in newspapers (210). Objectivity also became more prevalent as the partisanship seen in older newspapers fell away with the influx of more readers. These changes, Czitrom reflects, “transformed the newspaper from a personal journal and party organ into primarily a disseminator of news” (18).
It is the changes within society caused by the telegraph that prompts Morse and James G. Bennett of the New York Herald newspaper to make comments still relevant to media today. Morse can be seen as a precursor to McLuhan with his notion of the “global village,” which can be traced to as early as 1838. Morse sees the future as a place with knowledge being known everywhere at once, and the spread of ideas leading to the elimination of the “old system of exclusion and insulation” (Carey, 208). The Internet appears to fulfill these goals, and has certainly made the “global village” argument more valid with the amount of connectedness occurring online since both Morse and McLuhan. As for Bennett, he believed any newspaper not utilizing the telegraph would soon cease to exist. Replace “telegraph” with “Internet” or even “social media” and we have a strong argument for journalism today.
The advent of the radio and automobile, as discussed by Popp, change the nature of everyday life more significantly after the turn of the century. Whereas the telegraph was rarely seen in private homes and infrequently used for simple point to point communication after the rise of Western Union, the radio and automobile invaded homes and changed the habits of ordinary people all over the country. Leisure time was most effected, especially with the broadcast of entertainment over the radio directly into the home. The ability to travel for leisure was available through cars, and destinations such as shopping centers sprang up to attract a more mobile public. While telegraphy and the railroads began to increase the connectivity of disparate groups of people, the radio and automobile put “involuntary isolation,” as William Paley stated, on its deathbed (Popp, 475).
Wheeler situates telegraphy as the start of the third great network revolution, and the point to multipoint structure is also found in broadcast radio. With the increased use of new technology in the early 20th century, network building sped up as each home became integrated and communication was readily available everywhere, and laying the groundwork for Wheeler’s revolution of digital communication. The family could gather around their own radio and drive together in their own car, in effect privatizing the use of technology and media.
Some saw the private use of technology as an invasion imposed on communities that were once self-sufficient. Cries against the loss of public life echoed as critics bemoaning the replacement of social forms of entertainment which had dated back to ancient Greece. Democracy was said to be threatened because private hours were being dominated by cars, radio and film when individuals should be actively participating in community-sustaining efforts. Even the idea of a wholly connected country that can bypass great distances through communication was seen as leading to a “phantasmagoric national culture” devoid of local flavor (Popp, 472).
The luxury of hindsight allows us to laugh at these criticisms, but we cannot do so without acknowledging today’s detractors of our era’s new media. The second suggestion on Google’s autocomplete function for the phrase “is texting…” is “…killing the English language.” Critics today say we are becoming more isolated with our use of technology, and the richness of face-to-face communication is dying.
Yet the prospect of a better tomorrow will also always accompany new technology. Business leaders forged a future requiring new technology, newspapers changed the entire nature of journalism by adopting the telegraph, and even notions of spirituality were affected with the ability to transmit messages in the “nonmaterial world” (Carey, 206). Technology and media have changed society a number of times, and it’s important to revisit the history of those changes to learn how the norms of today have come to be established.