Review: The Victorian Internet or ‘How I learned online dating is A-OK’

28 01 2009

The Victorian Internet: The Remarkable Story of the Telegraph and the Nineteenth Century’s On-line Pioneers. Tom Standage. New York: Walker & Company, 1998. 217 pp.

To think, all this time I was mildly embarrassed to have met my girlfriend on I would have spent much less time dodging friends’ questions about how we met if I had known that, 150 years ago, couples met – even married – using the telegraph. Online dating seems much less unique given that legacy.

This is one of many parallels that Tom Standage, business editor at The Economist, draws between the Internet and telegraph in his book, The Victorian Internet: The Remarkable Story of the Telegraph and the Nineteenth Century’s On-line Pioneers.

In the book’s preface, Standage notes how similar the Internet and telegraph are for delivering unprecedented networking capabilities in their respective eras. “The telegraph unleashed the greatest revolution in communications since the development of the printing press,” Standage says. “Modern Internet users are in many ways the heirs of the telegraphic traditions, which means that today we are in a unique position to understand the telegraph.” With that, Standage leaves the Internet comparisons for readers to discover and provides an enjoyable narrative describing the birth and death of the telegraph and its effect as “The mother of all networks” upon the world.

Standage’s greatest achievement in this efficient, 200-page book spanning the telegraph’s 100-year history is his ability to develop characters. Pioneers of the telegraph – Samuel Morse, William Cooke and Charles Wheatstone, among others – are brought to life for readers though the chronicles of their trials, blunders, recognitions and lack thereof. For example, Standage turns Wheatstone from a name in a history book into a real, flawed person though passages like the one describing how he and Cooke struck a partnership to create what became the first telegraph in England: “Impressed by what he later described as Cooke’s ‘zeal, ability and perseverance,’ Wheatstone eventually agreed to a partnership, on the rather childish condition that his name would go first on documentation.”

Thomas Edison, best known for his inventions of the phonograph and light bulb, has a strong presence in the book as well. His experience as a telegraph operator (and a damn good one at that) would be a side note in other texts, but The Victorian Internet expounds how his experience as a telegraph operator connected him to the company that funded his most famous inventions.  Passages like these are plentiful in the book and valuable to those seeking to learn more about the path to success rather than success itself.

Outside of these characters, Standage demonstrates the impact the telegraph had on the world, from news reporting to war to romance. Stories of a bride and groom marrying via telegraph published in London in 1848.  The telegraph played a strategic role in the Crimean War during the 1850s. By the 1880s, European and American stock markets relied upon the telegraph for timely business exchanges. Sound familiar? Throughout the book, Standage knits a pattern of examples that makes the Internet feel more evolutionary than revolutionary.

The Victorian Internet’s “decline and fall” happens, ironically, when Standage describes the telegraph’s decline and fall. This isn’t all Standage’s fault.  Historically, the creation of the telegraph was exciting – a roller coaster of pitfalls and triumphs. By the time the telegraph was in decline, its pioneers were relatively inactive and innovation was flat. The impact of the telegraph was realized, and inventors left it for developing audio technologies like the telephone. As a result, the book slows and becomes as uninteresting as the telegraph in its late life. Still, for as exciting as Standage could make the telegraph, which is considered a dull topic by today’s standards, he could have better enlisted his skills to enhance the storyline of its last days.

Despite this, Standage more often than not entertains and educates. He does this, in part, by maintaining a consistent presence in the book. His rich, tongue-in-cheek transitions like, “Meanwhile the French, as usual, were doing things their own way,” compliment his narrative style and are a reminder that he is equally historian and storyteller.

It’s this style that carries the story and reader’s interest, separating the book from an extended Wikipedia entry while never compromising the historical impact of the telegraph. I’d recommend The Victorian Internet to any fan of history and would even recommend it to my girlfriend, who I am proud to say I met online.


Family ties: Rates of social media adoption

26 01 2009

I read Roger’s innovation-decision process and agreed with how he defined the process into steps: Knowledge, persuasion, decision, implementation and confirmation. These steps can, of course, be defined correctly in a number of ways, but I saw no flaw to Roger’s approach.

I especially agreed with Roger’s generalizations of “early knowers” because of a recent interaction I had on Facebook with my aunt, a “late knower,” that I could relate to:

1. Earlier knowers of an innovation have more education than do later knowers.

Related to Facebook, this is absolutely true. She contacted me to ask how she could “become friends” with my sister just last week. Because I’ve been on Facebook since 2002, I obviously have more knowledge about Facebook than my aunt (who just recently joined Facebook) because I’ve had more time to acquire it. However, I have a hard time seeing a general correlation between higher education and early knowers related to social media because quite often early adopters (teens and tweens) are far less educated than late adopters (adults).

2. Earlier knowers of an innovation have higher social status than do late knowers.

I don’t mean to brag, but… Really, I have more friends, more connections, more of a network than my aunt because of my early adoption.

3. Earlier knowers of an innovation have more exposure to mass media channels of communication than do later knowers.

I’m not sure if I have as many mass media channels, if those channels are to be defined broadly into, for example, music, video, etc. However, if the channels are defined as sources rather than media than, yes, I do have more channels via groups, news streams, etc.

4. Earlier knows of an innovation have more exposure to interpersonal channels than do later knowers.

I definitely have more exposure to interpersonal channels because of my more extensive networks and access through these networks.

5. Earlier knowers of an innovation have more contact with change agents than do later knowers.

This is totally true. Having joined Facebook when it was just limited to college students, I was much closer to the structural changes that occurred on the site as well as the feedback channels, which have since become more distant. Because my aunt just joined Facebook, she missed the opportunity to access these.

6. Earlier knowers of an innovation have more social particpation than do later knowers.

My participation is much higher than my aunt’s because of the amount of time and opportunity I’ve had to particpate in Facebook. As a result, I have more wall postings, pictures, etc. However, I have far fewer messages and applications than my grandmother, who, despite her short time on the site, has invested a large amount of time into it. Thus, time of adoption may not always correlate to level of participation.

7. Earlier knowers of an innovation are more cosmopolite than later knowers.

Related to my aunt, this makes sense. I live in Ballard, she lives in Lake Forest Park. Enough said. However, my roommate has yet to adopt Facebook at all, so the correlation is defintely a generalization. I’d be curious to know what percentage of Facebook users live in urban vs. suburban vs. rural locations. I’d assume, like Rogers, that the majority live in urban locations.

Shaping songs: Music distribution and its affect on the art

22 01 2009

Ever since Columbia produced the first vinyl record in 1948, the physical distribution of music has affected its form.

Albums of songs could only be as long as records could physically hold, which affected how artists wrote music. The length of songs and albums expanded with evolutions of vinyl and newer, popular distribution forms — from 8-track to cassette to CD and digital, which we have today.

What’s beyond digital and how will that affect songs and albums? By researching the cause and effect of physical distribution forms of the past, I hope to explore in my term project what the future may offer.

As Albin Zak says in The Poetics of Rock: Cutting Tracks, Making Records, “Even if rock and roll had its roots in live performance traditions, it was nevertheless… first and foremost a recorded music. Its rapid rise in popularity was a result not of live performances but of mass radio exposure, which was fed by records — primarily the new and affordable 45-rpm singles that were the staples of teenagers’ record collections.” These 45-rpm records were physically limited to holding approximately three minutes of music on one side. Thus, songs of the pioneering rock and roll era were written to be within three minutes — forever shaping popular music.

In contrast, digital distribution forms today free musicians from having to create music around physical constraints. For example, Nine Inch Nails last year released “Ghosts I-IV,” comprising of nine-track instrumental EPs, 36 tracks in total.

This freedom is not unchallenged. Within popular music, there is tension between artistic creativity and popularity, which continues to be driven by traditional song forms — shaped by distribution methods of decades past.

This term project will examine the history of music distribution and its affect on the art today and in the future.

Questions: ‘Seeing What’s Next’ Part 1

19 01 2009
  1. The authors discuss “asymmetries” in competition. What are some recent asymmetries in digital media that have differentiated a newcomer or incumbent? What about in social media?
  2. The 1996 Telecommunications Reform act shook up the teleco industries in both positive and negative ways, drawing criticism about the effectiveness of government intervention. In light of this, under what circumstances do you think would cause government to regulate or deregulate Internet economies?
  3. The last “hot bed” of innovation was the dot com bubble of the late 90s, during which million of dollars were invested into companies that ultimately failed. How can we again rebuild investor confidence in online businesses so that innovation can again reign, or is that level of innovation and investment even necessary?

Term project proposal: From wax to zeros and ones

13 01 2009

I’d like to look at the evolution of the music distribution.

I’d like to look at how music delivery moved from paper to wax to cassette to 8-track to CD to digital — and everywhere in between. I’d like to look at this through the scope of how technological advancements enabled new distributions. I believe I’ll have plenty of scholarly sources to draw from for this research.

Considering the long history of music distributions, I may look at “mass distribution” to narrow my scope, but would be open to any feedback about how else I can define this term project.

Initial source for term project

13 01 2009

As I am looking at the evolution of music distribution services, this article on the “Alternate distribution strategies for digital music” should be fitting. The abstract is short, but I hope this article will contribute to coloring how companies attempted to expedite the digital distribution of music after the turn of the century.

Abstract: “Digitization of music has created opportunities to reengineer the supply chain and improve its efficiency. But how will it play out?”

Premkumar, G. P. 2003. Alternate distribution strategies for digital music. Commun. ACM 46, 9 (Sep. 2003), 89-95. DOI=

Reading reflection #1

12 01 2009

In his book, Code 2.0, Lawrence Lessig uses short stories to explain how cyberspace has challenged de facto regulations in the physical world.

One of his stories is related to governing online gambling. In this story, Lessig explains how a citizen of a fictional state can avoid laws against Internet gambling by placing his or her physical server, which hosts the gambling Web site, outside the boundaries of the state. The citizen can still monitor and profit from the gambling Web site from home, within the boundaries of the state.  The story presents the challenge of governing cyberspace and reminds me of my own personal experiences related to online gambling.

While working at a dot com a few years ago, we encountered gambling companies wanting to utilize our services. The companies’ practices were somewhat suspect and their servers were located in the Bahamas. Nevertheless, we couldn’t identify an actual problem with the companies and, because they were based outside of the U.S., we couldn’t find any legal reason why we couldn’t do business with them.

However, we also could not determine if our interaction with them would cause us any legal trouble because we were based in the U.S. The situation was rather confusing because we, a company regulated by U.S. laws (and even those were fuzzy for dot coms), weren’t on the same playing field as these companies that had no restrictions. Ultimately we chose to interact with these companies within our terms of services, which were of course in line with federal laws, to be safe

At the end of the reading, Lessig says he does not oppose Internet regulations by governments. Based upon this experience, neither do I. Especially related to captialism on the Internet, consumers would probably benefit from government regulations to assure that online businesses are legitimate.