Mobile-phone text messages (SMS) have a lot in common with telegrams, as I have pointed out on several occasions. The need for brevity forces you to be concise and encourages the use of abbreviations to save space. And of course I love the fact that Nokia handsets can announce incoming texts with three short beeps, two long ones and three short ones — Morse code for “SMS”. If text messages are Telegram 2.0, however, then might Twitter be Telegram 3.0? Once again the constraint of brevity applies, at any rate. The similarity between telegrams and Twitter messages (tweets) is explored by An Xiao, an artist based in New York, in a new piece that has just gone on show at the Brooklyn Museum (her video explanation). She’s taking a Twitter feed and turning it into audible Morse code. I think this is pretty cool, not least because there are also some portraits by Samuel Morse (himself pictured left) in the museum.
An Xiao notes that Twitter got going just after the demise of the telegram in America in early 2006. She also points out that there are some significant differences between Twitter and telegrams. Twitter messages are broadcast (one-to-many); telegrams were generally one-to-one messages. The other big difference is that the cost per bit has fallen to zero since the days of the telegraph. So instead of being used to send urgent messages, as telegrams were, tweets tend to be used to send trivia. Once you have near-instant point-to-point messaging, you can’t get any faster — just more verbose and trivial.
One advantage of writing about obsolete technologies is that my books are far less liable to go out of date. Or, to look at it another way, my books are already out of date when they appear which, oddly, seems to give them a longer shelf life.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.
It’s that time of year again: survey time. This means I get five weeks to write about 12,000 words on a single subject. It’s rather like doing a short book. This year’s topic: the trillion-dollar telecoms industry, which is in something of a mess following the bursting of the technology bubble. But, I argue, things are not as bad as they look. There is still scope for growth in mobile phones, broadband and various whizzy new kinds of internet services for large companies. Inevitably, there’s a telegraph reference in there too.
An exhibition inspired by The Victorian Internet is currently on show at the National Library of Medicine in Bethesda, Maryland. “The Once and Future Web” is also available online. It shows the similarities between the telegraph and the Internet and looks at the life-saving and medical uses of both technologies. A review of the exhibition has just been published by the British Medical Journal.
My 15,000-word magnum opus on the future of the wireless Internet has just appeared in The Economist. There’s a large dose of historical analogy, with particular reference to horseless carriages and, of course, telegraphs. This survey ended up answering the question that I posed at the end of The Victorian Internet — which technology will take the Internet mainstream, in the way that the telephone took the telegraph mainstream? My guess is: the Internet-enabled mobile phone.
Has the Internet killed geography? Can you really run a dotcom from the top of a mountain? Will the Internet prevent national governments from enforcing local laws? Er, no. It turns out that the Internet is more constrained by geography than you might think, as I explain in this article in The Economist. Its cables piggyback on previous infrastructure, such as railways, sewers and (as I can’t resist pointing out) the pneumatic tubes that once carried telegrams. Honestly, I’m like a cracked record sometimes.