The Victorian Internet

I’ve seen The Victorian Internet talked about by quite a few people and was eager to read it. What I didn’t realize was just how much Tom Standage would make me think about Ursula Franklin as he told the story of the telegraph.

Standage wrote this book in 1997 and then updated it with an afterword in 2007. It’s amazing how this book saw and understood about the internet at the time it was written. It’s also amazing how much the rise of the telegraph was so similar to the rise of the internet. At one point at the end Standage say that for a person from the Victorian Era the internet wouldn’t be nearly as jarring and new to them as air travel or other inventions of the 20th century, because the internet is so similar to the telegraph, and I think he’s right.

Standage takes you through the story of the invention of the telegraph, how its popularity rose, and then how it eventually got taken over by other inventions, such as the telephone. And he doesn’t shy away from pointing out the negative consequences of the telegraph and how the technology changed and shaped the end of the 19th century.

The book is fast paced and well written and I highly recommend it. Especially if you want to think about today’s technology with a new perspective.

Unfortunately, the social impact of the global telegraph network did not turn out to be so straightforward. Better communication does not necessarily lead to a wide understanding of other points of view; the potential of new technologies to change things for the better is invariably overstated, while the ways in ehich they will make things worse are usually unforeseen. (p 104)

So much for universal peace and understanding. The telegraph was providing new ways to cheat, steal, live, and deceive. (p 126)