A few weeks ago, I got a very flattering plug and a bunch of new traffic from Cliopatria, a group blog of historians hosted by the History News Network. Now I can announce that they have very kindly invited me to join them in blogging there. I’m pleased and flattered to come on board, as I’ve been reading and admiring both Cliopatria and the individual blogs of many of its members for some time. I hope I will find things to talk about at Cliopatria. As a young and not yet securely-employed historian, I’m reluctant to charge into fierce name-naming debates about the historical profession, but my thoughts on history in the abstract may find a home on that blog as well as this one. For instance, right now I’m trying to decide if the post I just made about Tucker Carlson and Ann Coulter versus Canada is too snarky and petulant for Cliopatria’s wider audience. Peanut gallery?
I just got back from Upper Canada, where it was -30° C in the daytime, and the following bit of video from the time of George Bush’s Ottawa visit was making the rounds. It’s Ann Coulter and Tucker Carlson taking a few cheap shots at Canadians while some gormless backbencher clucks feebly in the Dominion’s defense. I must warn you, the clip does neither country any credit. And it’s not nearly as satisfying as the justly famous video of Jon Stewart schooling Tucker on Crossfire. But you can go watch it now, in Quicktime or Windows Media. I’ll wait.
Are you back? OK. Yes. I know. Well, don’t say I didn’t warn you.
With this post, I’m opening up comments on Old is the New New. I think I have MT-Blacklist installed properly, so hopefully we won’t have many problems with comment spammers. Our readership is, I imagine, small but highly discriminating. So whether you’re an online casino operator, a Nigerian diplomat with a delicate financial proposition, or a gaggle of barely-legal shemale hotties looking to party, I’d love to hear your thoughts on the history of the telephone and the future of networked communication.
I said in my previous throat-clearing post that I’ve been thinking lately about what lessons the early history of the telephone might offer for similar technological issues in our own time. I’m still circling around the topic gingerly, because there’s a lot to digest, and there’s a lot to learn. I’m going to start with small, and perhaps obvious, observations. But here is the first in a series of notions, just one thing to keep in mind when thinking about the internet and technological change:
The network is a physical thing.
It is my heart-warm and world-embracing Christmas hope and aspiration that all of us—the high, the low, the rich, the poor, the admired, the despised, the loved … the hated, the civilized, the savage … may eventually be gathered together in a heaven of everlasting rest and peace and bliss—except the inventor of the telephone.
—Mark Twain, 1878
That quotation doesn’t really relate to what I’m about to talk about, but it does amuse me. Twain (or Samuel Clemens—I never know whether it’s more correct to refer to an author by his name or better known pseudonym) was actually a big techie, an early adopter if you like. The fact that he even had a telephone in 1878 is pretty good proof of that. But new technologies could be irritating in 1878 in exactly the same way they can be irritating today. Hence Twain’s grumpy Christmas message. I believe Alexander Graham Bell actually wrote to him in mock protest after that was published, and Twain issued a sort of retraction, extending best wishes to Bell and instead ejecting the director of Twain’s local telephone company from his wished for heaven of peace and rest.
Anyway, Mark Twain also said, “History doesn’t repeat itself, but it rhymes.” And that does relate to what I’m about to talk about. You see, I wrote this dissertation, which I’m now turning into a book, about the political and cultural history of the telephone from the 1870s through the 1920s. And for some time now, I’ve been saying in talks and papers and grant proposals, “This story offers many lessons for our own era of rapid technological change.” And it’s true. There are many, many similarities between the struggles over telephony a century ago—who would control the telephone, how it would be regulated, what it was for, and what it meant—and debates over the internet, wireless, and other communication technologies today. In many ways, the world of telecommunications in the year 2004 looks more like the world of telecommunications in the year 1904 than it did for most of the twentieth century.
“Who do you root for in the French Revolution?”
Lisa and I were in Paris this summer, a trip my other website chronicled at some length. One morning we toured the Conciergerie, the prison where those condemned by the Revolution spent their final days. Considering all it commemorates–tyranny! revolution! heroism! terror! heads, and the cutting off thereof!–the Conciergerie is surprisingly dull. There are two ways for a museum to be interesting, I think. One is to offer genuine historical analysis: to put things in context, to make real connections between history and the objects on display, to teach visitors something new. The other is to pander to what visitors already think they know: cheering the heroes and hissing the villains, and maybe tossing in a nice laser light show or some gory wax mannequins. But the Conciergerie steadfastly refuses to do either. The stone cells where Marie-Antoinette, and later Robespierre, waited for the guillotine are just empty rooms now. Shuffling through them with a hundred other tourists does not evoke La Terreur so much as L’Ennui.
So in an attempt to liven up the proceedings, I asked Lisa, “Who do you root for in the French Revolution?” The Conciergerie offers no hints as to whether its curators’ sympathies lie with doomed aristocrats, brilliant philosophes, ruthless dictators, downtrodden peasants, or angry bourgeoisie. Dividing the past into good guys and bad guys almost never makes for good history, but it does pass the time. Lisa thought about it a bit and said, “Benjamin Franklin.”