Tuesday, June 18, 2019

The internet in historical perspective

Tom Wheeler, former chair of the FCC:

Today, everybody talks about how much information is bombarding us. Imagine what it must have been like after the printing press when people who had been totally devoid of information had all of this information flooding them. The powers-that-be rebelled against that. Shortly after the printing press was developed, a Swiss scholar sat down and said, “I’m going to catalog all of the books that have been printed thus far.” He ended up warning of the harmful magnitude of books and how it will create nothing but chaos. Well, that’s kind of like what we’re experiencing today on the internet, isn’t it?
The railroad was the first high-speed network. From the beginning of humankind, geography and distance had defined the human experience. How far can muscle power take you in a day was a defining force. How far you can carry raw materials — whether it be coal or wheat — was a defining economic force. All of a sudden, the railroad comes by and destroys distance. It was the original death of distance. It totally reshaped economies and created the Industrial Revolution by being able to haul raw materials to a central point for mass production, and then haul the finished product back out to a connected market.

Immediately on top of the railroad came the telegraph. It became the tool by which to manage the railroad as well as manage these far-flung production capabilities. It introduced the first national news media, the first national financial markets. These two together in the middle of the 19th century created the reality that we take for granted today and are now living as a result of the internet.
From 2003

The Internet seems less important than the printing press. So much that flowed from movable type and cheap paper-- books, newspapers, magazines, pamphlets-- was new. Websites and blogs just seem like a continuation of some of these innovations.

On the other hand, the Internet is probably as important as the telegraph or telephone. They are also similar in that they represent improvements in the speed and ease of long-distance communication. But that is evidence that the Internet is not unprecedented or revolutionary as some boosters claimed. And returning to Brad DeLong's point, it suggests that technological advances do not automatically create business or social utopias. The telegraph's effect on government and business were varied. The Internet's effects will probably be the same mixed bag.

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