The once and future Internet

Tom Standage's history of telegraphy, The Victorian Internet, draws striking parallels between that era's communication revolution and our modern one. A 19th-century citizen transported to today would be amazed by air travel, Standage suggests, but not by the Internet. Been there, done that.

Multiprotocol routers? Check. Back then, they translated between Morse code and scraps of paper in canisters shot through pneumatic tubes.

Fraud? Check. Stock market feeds were being spoofed in the 1830s, back when the telegraph network ran on visual semaphores rather than electrical pulses.

Romance? Check. The first online marriage was really a telegraph marriage, performed not long after the dawn of electric telegraphy.

Continuous partial attention? Check. In 1848 the New York businessman W.E. Dodge was already feeling the effects of always-on connectivity:
The merchant goes home after a day of hard work and excitement to a late dinner, trying amid the family circle to forget business, when he is interrupted by a telegram from London.
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A number of folks recommended this book to me. As everyone says, it's a lively and entertaining look backward. But it also challenges us to think about how our modern Internet really differs from the Victorian one, and how a future Internet will differ from ours.

It's hard, maybe even impossible, to know which current trends will define us in the eyes of future historians. I hope that harnessing collective intelligence, user innovation, and lifehacking will matter in the long run. In order for things to play out that way, though, this week's column argues for a more diverse population of technologists, and for technologies that accommodate the diversity of the people who use them.

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