Honey, I Shrunk the World

Be careful what you tweet for.

Part of an interactive installation by digital artists Jon Thomson and Alison Craighead. The piece, "London Wall," is currently on display at the Museum of London; it is composed of tweets and text messages from a three-mile radius around the museum.

If you want to contact somebody, you have seemingly innumerable methods to choose from. You can write a letter. You can call. You can page. You can email. You can Skype. You can fax. You can Facebook-stalk. You can instant message. You can text. You can tweet. You can blag. Soon, I expect, you’ll even be able to woof:

The Office, NBC

The proliferation of communication technologies is often cited as one of the hallmarks of our modern age. Never before have we been able to throw our words so far, so quickly, so cheaply, and so easily. Many of us students have half-laughed-half-cried at our difficulty surviving in a land where our American super-compu-robo-phones can’t connect to their formerly ubiquitous networks. We may think we can stop anytime we want, but we’ve opened up a job market for counselors who can help people break their CrackBerry addictions. (I’m not even kidding – this already exists.)

Although globalization and the acceleration of communication are commonly perceived as 21st-century phenomena, the 19th century also witnessed an explosion of communication technologies, as well as unprecedented globalization, with similarly major consequences for daily life. For one thing, the postal service became much more effective – perhaps more effective, in some ways, than it even is today. The introduction of the Penny Black – the first-ever pre-paid adhesive public postal service stamp – switched the burden of payment from the recipient onto the sender; my haphazard guess is that, in addition to streamlining the payment process, this switch might have removed a mental barrier by eliminating the social awkwardness of incurring charge on somebody else without permission or warning. Whatever the reasons, the Penny Black revolutionized British mail. By the mid-nineteenth century, the Royal Mail was astonishingly fast by today’s standards: the dates on Charles Darwin’s letters indicate that sometimes, he could send a letter, receive a response, and then reply back, all within the same day. The USPS can only drool all over itself while it fantasizes about that kind of efficiency.

In fact, 19th-century Brits liked sending and receiving mail so much that they just wanted to use it all the time, so they decided to invent the world’s most frustrating postal tradition: the Christmas card. (We’ll soon come back to Henry Cole, the turdmongler who ruined holidays.)

Mail wasn’t the only mode of communication changing the world. Throughout the nineteenth century, the telegraph grew in efficacy and accessibility. By 1866, Britain and the United States were connected by a transatlantic telegraph cable; interactions that had previously taken weeks could now take place in minutes. Four years later, Britain added a line to India, strengthening its hold on the most prized possession of the Empire. The further the web of cables spread, the smaller the world became. Telegraph lines and mail routes alike buzzed with activity, radically changing the concept of community and the exchange of ideas and information within and among communities. (It’s no surprise that “communication” and “community” are linked etymologically as well as functionally.) Improved communication between scientists (e.g. Darwin’s mail correspondence with his colleagues) allowed the pace of study to accelerate, facilitating the dissemination of new theories and cutting down on time wasted testing hypotheses that had already been disproven by other researchers, for example. But I suspect the advances in communication technology must have had an even more drastic effect on daily life for the average Victorian. I can only imagine the feeling of suddenly being able to converse near-instantaneously with people who, just months before, had effectively not existed in your world.

That world probably never felt smaller than during the summer of 1851, when the Great Exhibition took over Hyde Park. This “Exhibition of the Works of Industry of All Nations” was the first major visitor attraction, drawing millions of people to London during the less than six months it was open. The enormous glass building constructed to hold the aforementioned works of industry – popularly known as the Crystal Palace – went up in around six months (an astonishing time frame even for today). The exhibition was groundbreaking: though regional and national exhibitions had been held for decades in some countries, the British convention was the first such event to go international. Everything about it was larger than life, from the massive glass building to the machines inside to the crowds that ogled them to the elaborate ceremonies (which were said to resemble Queen Victoria’s coronation) to the dynamic personalities who organized it (including Prince Albert himself, as well as Henry Cole, inventor of yuletide tedium). The Great Exhibition seems to exemplify the trend of globalization that dominated the Victorian era. Though Prince Albert claimed in his speech at the opening ceremony that the exhibition signified “the unity of all mankind,” it may have more accurately displayed the incredible diversity of cultures; either way, the essential point, I think, is that for the first time in many people’s lives, they were suddenly exposed to all mankind (or at least quasi-representative samples of much of it, and at any rate a far larger proportion than they had previously encountered). Britons even met other types of Britons for the first time, or interacted more closely with them than ever before, since the exhibition tended to mix usually segregated social classes. The Exhibition was full of firsts, including the first public toilet (which cost a penny to use and gave rise to the British euphemism “going to spend a penny,” meaning going to use the restroom) and the first tourism day-trip (run by Thomas Cook, for whom still-extant Cook’s Tours are named). Its enormous influence is illustrated by the fact that the statue of Albert in the Albert Memorial is shown holding a copy of the Exhibition’s program.

Through exploding communication technologies and unprecedented events like the Great Exhibition, the globe seemed to shrink throughout the nineteenth century. The take-home message of the Victorian era seems to be that it’s a small world after all.

[Originally posted 7/2/10]
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