Tuesday 24 August 2010

A Telegraph in Every Home

Sometimes things conspire to make you ponder a topic. I read this a few days ago (about internet distractions) and this has been on my radar for a while (about mapping happiness via the iphone).

I can't imagine anything more useless than checking whether iphone users consider themselves happy at any given moment. Apart from the obvious jokes , the idea that the self-reported 'happiness level' of self-selected iphone users can tell you anything about human happiness in general seems dubious. There is potential for happiness in lots of things, and lots of different types of happiness, garnered from different types of human experience; and happiness can linger or be transitory. Well, I won't go on about it; but it seems a petty and reductive exercise to me - you'd be better off reading a novel or poem; or - dare I say it - just talking to a few people. You would probably learn a lot more.

What connected the two articles in my mind was the modus operandi of the LSE survey ... "We beep you once (or more) a day to ask how you're feeling". (Of course, they don't want to ask  you about how you're feeling, that would involve talking to you - they just want a simplified measure of your well-being which can be converted into a binary format, tagged with a geo-location, and stored in a database - ah, isn't social science cuddly?).

What struck me is how we're coming to accept such digital intrusion as normal. The idea that such a beep might itself be a horrible intrusion on our happiness is not considered.

Now, I love the internet; and I'm even enjoying twitter (which, used constructively, is a marvellous way of finding information and connecting with people) but does no-one cherish their privacy any more? The answer, increasingly, is no; we are moving into a culture where digital exhibitionism and (fairly bogus) 'interactivity' in one form or another, is the norm. This blog, of course, is one symptom of that; and I don't have dogmatic opinions on whether it will end well or badly.

However, if this blog has a point, it is to show you contrasts and connections between past and present. So here's a fantasy from Punch (1858) based on the dreadful idea of an interactive, 24/7, digital culture. The medium considered is the telegraph ('The Victorian Internet') but the principle is the same:


    A Telegraph all over London? The wires brought to within 100 yards of every man's door? A Company established to carry it out?
    Well - I don't know. There's a good deal to be said on both side.
    It certainly would be pleasant to be within five minutes of such a message as "Dine at the Club with me at seven;" or "SQUATTLEBOROUGH JUNCTIONS" at six premium; I've sold your hundred, and paid in the cash to your account;" or "Little stranger arrived safe this morning at twelve; mamma and baby doing well;" and one might occasionally be grateful for such a warning as "KITE and POUNCE took out a writ against you this morning - Look alive;" or "JAWKINS coming to call on you; make yourself scarce."
    But think on the other hand of being within five minutes of every noodle who wants to ask you a question, of every dun with a "little account;" of every acquaintance who has a favour to beg, or a disagreeable thing to communicate. With the post one secures at least the three or four hours betwixt writing the letter and its delivery. When I leave my suburban retreat at Brompton, at nine A.M., for the City, I am insured against MRS. P.'s anxieties, and tribulations, and consultings, on the subject of our little family, or our little bills, the servants' shortcomings, or the tradesmen's delinquencies, at least till my return to dinner. But with a House Telegraph, it would be a perpetual tete-a-tete. We should be always in company, as it were, with all our acquaintance. Good gracious, we should go far to outvie SIR BOYLE ROCHE's famous bird, and be not in two places only, but in every place within the whole range of the House-Telegraph at once. Solitude would become impossible. The bliss of ignorance would be at an end. We should come near that most miserable of all conceivable conditions, of being able to oversee and overhear all that is being done or said concerning us all over London! Every bore's finger would be always on one's button; every intruder's hand on one's knocker; every good-natured friend's lips in one's ear.
    No - all things considered, I don't think society is quite ripe for the House-Telegraph yet. If it is established I shall put up a plate on my door with "No House-Telegrams need apply."
Ridiculous piece of fantasy, of course. It could never happen.


  1. Being a ham radio operator, I can tell you having a telegraph at the house is only the beginning. Then you must learn the language, not the dit and dah, but the soundless pause between the clicks, the place where the sound should arrive. Without this knowledge the message would seem like so much racket. And if you weren't home to copy? Ah, the sender, after finishing would await an acknowledgement, or an "ACK."

    The telephone was a vast improvement for most folks because it wasn't necessary to learn a language or hire someone who already knew it to know what the meaning of the message. The telephone worked, and still works, in everyone's mopther tongue--American, Chinese, or Spanish.

    But one glitch still exists, at least in the telephones we common folks can afford to own. GIGO is still as true as it ever was.


  2. I agree that people have embraced social networking a little recklessly and have not yet realized the dangers of making all their personal data public property. It is reminiscent of the early beginnings of viruses before people had realized the dangers: later people understood the need to take precautions.

    Having said that, what is "intrusive" is for the individual mind to decide. My partner emails me from work all day long and I receive these emails on my computer and on my phone. They are not "intrusive" because I like them (and her, of course!) But if someone else did that, then I most probably would regard it as intrusive.

    The writer of the passage on the telegraph is writing speculatively. He doesn't have a home telegraph and therefore can only imagine what having one would be like. If he did get one, he would most probably find that it was quite different from what he thought it would be and many of his objections would prove baseless.

    How do I know? Because I evinced his attitude towards the mobile phone before I had one and therefore detested that which I did not know. Once I had one and discovered how to maximize its utility and minimize any annoyances, I found it quite different from what I thought it would be. Now I would not be without it.

    Prejudice against innovation is a very common human trait. The Victorian era was a great time for innovation and so, I suppose, it is not surprising to find many a backwoodsman complaining about new technology before he had so much as experienced it.

  3. I am probably equal parts old-fashioned and thoroughly modern and digitized, and so I see many disadvantages to our great digital age, even as I see advantages. The amount of information I have available to me at a moment's notice, the ability to communicate with anyone instantly; but it never fails that with such convenience we learn to abuse it. I have found that I am more fed-up and distant now with people I once considered friends, when I see the inane, dysenteric, compulsive proclamations issued every hour on Facebook. Do I need to know that you just came home from work, or that you're drinking coffee, or that you're watching a movie with your daughter? It is this 'digital exhibitionism,' as you put it, that makes temporary celebrities out of the only person on Twitter that Conan O'Brien befriended, merely for that reason, or some guy who quit his job with a flourish (and could have endangered his coworkers). Better to be infamous now for anything - ANYTHING - than to be unknown after a long, well-lived life.

    Of course, privacy and meaningful interactions have been thrust by the wayside as well, as I am as guilty of doing so as anyone. In 'Mad Men,' Peggy Olsen pitches a Western Union campaign, that you get a telegram in all of the life-changing, memorable moments of your life and it's something concrete to hold and feel. We almost never have that anymore. No matter what the event is, our best bet amidst fleeting evidence of history as it dashes by is our memory. And that is no better in the digital age than it ever used to be. Yes, we have photos and videos and the same thing rehashed across the intertubes, but you can't touch it or smell it, and all those zeroes and ones will be gone someday.

    Don't get me wrong. I love what is possible with technology today, and I use it in every aspect of my life. But your post has caught me in the right mood for a eulogy for the experiences left behind.