The internet — not so new and not so diverse either

The Victorian era had its own version of the net, says Jon Udell

Tom Standage’s history of telegraphy, The Victorian Internet, draws striking parallels between that era’s communication revolution and our modern one. A 19th-century citizen transported to today would be amazed by air travel, Standage suggests, but not by the internet. Been there, done that, they would think.

Multi-protocol routers? Check. Back then, they translated between Morse code and scraps of paper in cannisters shot through pneumatic tubes. Fraud? Check. Stock market feeds were being spoofed in the 1830s when the telegraph network ran on visual semaphores rather than electrical pulses.

Romance? Check. The first online marriage was really a telegraph marriage, performed not long after the dawn of electric telegraphy. Continuous partial attention? Check. In 1848, the New York businessman WE Dodge was already feeling the effects of always-on connectivity: “The merchant goes home after a day of hard work and excitement to a late dinner, trying amid the family circle to forget business, when he is interrupted by a telegram from London.”

We’ve learned much in the century-and-a-half since then, and we’ve accomplished miracles that I think would amaze even a jaded Victorian time traveller. But there’s still an impedance mismatch between instantaneous electronic messaging and our ability to absorb, process and act on the messages that flood in on us.

Common sense, meanwhile, is making a comeback. Day-Timers are tired, but David Allen’s Getting Things Done — a book, a methodology and now almost a religion — is wired. Today’s young, connected, IM-and-RSS-saturated workforce is rediscovering lists, task triage and time management. This is all good, because common sense is undervalued in every century. But why is technology still as likely to be part of the problem as it is to be part of the solution?

It’s no mystery. Engineering hardware and software is fun, addictive and intrinsically rewarding. There are daunting challenges, but they often yield to logic, persistence and focus.

Engineering social systems is another game entirely. When people navigate the info-sphere — absorbing data, juggling tasks, communicating decisions — their cognitive and emotional styles govern personal and collective success in ways that don’t yield to conventional engineering strategies.

Given the same set of data, tasks and decisions, my software should behave very differently for me than yours does for you. It should learn my habits, adjust to my needs and help me learn the habits and adjust to the needs of others. But that doesn’t happen. The notion of “skinning” applications is ironically appropriate: software customisation only goes skin deep.

On the lifehack websites, you’ll find people talking about their strategies for staying sane and productive. Technology plays a key role, but the real action is in the realm of technique: how people adapt technology to suit their own unique styles. Those techniques are strikingly diverse as, of course, they always have been.

Technologists, though, aren’t nearly so diverse. I’ve noted how overwhelmingly male is the population of software professionals. That’s one problem. The insularity of engineering disciplines is another. If we can’t find a way to partner with linguists, artists, psychologists, teachers and librarians, the next century’s internet might not look very different from our own.

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