Given my passion for historical analogies, I was thrilled to be asked to take part in a documentary in BBC Radio 4’s “Long View” strand. This is a program that draws historical analogies between modern and historical events — in this case between the rise of Google and the 19th century Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge, which harnessed an older technology (the steam press) to similarly utopian ends (making knowledge more widely available). The show airs on Tuesday February 28th, at 9am and again at 9.30pm. Since we recorded the program, Google’s shares have fallen somewhat. Indeed, once a company becomes so successful that these kinds of programs are made about it, you can’t help but wonder if its best days are behind it.
One advantage of writing about obsolete technologies is that my books are far less liable to go out of date. Or, to look at it another way, my books are already out of date when they appear which, oddly, seems to give them a longer shelf life. “The Victorian Internet” was repeatedly recommended as a helpful book through which to understand the dotcom boom, during the boom itself, then through the crash, and now in the shiny new Google era. As recently as last year, the Wall Street Journal, the Financial Times and Fortune all recommended it — it even topped the Journal’s list of “Five Best Books on Business and the Internet”. Not bad for a book that had its genesis a decade ago in an article I wrote for the Daily Telegraph, published in July 1996.
Anyway, having rounded off last year with a New York Times Op-Ed about wine snobbery derived from my “Six Glasses” book, this month I had to don my “Victorian Internet” hat once again, following the announcement by Western Union that it was shutting down its telegram service. I was asked to comment by NPR, the BBC, and many newspapers. And the Los Angeles Times invited me to write an Op-Ed on the subject, which sums up my thoughts on the topic. The main points: first, I was frankly surprised that telegrams were still going. Second, even though telegrams have now passed into history, at least in America, they have in a sense been reborn: in the past year or so, Americans have finally adopted the telegram-like medium of text messaging. This has resulted in a spate of hilarious articles explaining teenage texting and its strange, telegraphic abbreviations to baffled American grown-ups. (The same sort of articles appeared in the European press four or five years ago.) It took American consumers a while to adopt this technology, for a number of reasons, but now it seems they’re finally catching up with the rest of the world. The telegram is dead; long live the telegram.