The telegraph marked the first time that communication was separated from transportation. Prior to that point, the most significant long-distance communication relied on signals (fire, and later a form of semaphore) broadcast over long distances (Carey, 2010). These forms, however, were limited and thus the bulk of communication relied on transportation of messages. By removing the link between transportation and communication, the telegraph set in motion a new pattern for communication that remains in force today. Communication in our world — and by extension the way that we view our world — reflects a direct evolution of the concept of the telegraph.
The physical means of communication underwent a strong paradigm shift with the invention of the telegraph. In the early 20th century, two events occurred that provided the impetus for technological evolution. Bell invented the telephone in 1876 but it was only the early 1900s that it became a popular technology as consumers began to see the value in the device. The Titanic disaster in 1912 became the first major media event, and this brought to the public’s attention the value of rapid communication. Had the boat that sunk not been the Titanic, a highly publicized vessel, the event may not have resulted in such a profound shift in the public’s consciousness (Carey, 2010). By this point, the telephone was becoming more popular among consumers and soon superseded the telegraph as the primary means of distance communication. This is a critical shift, because the emergence of the telephone as a consumer item marked a shift from distance communication as a niche market product to a mass market one.
The next phase of technological evolution was the emergence of radio, which allowed for mass broadcast of ideas. A more rapid form of mass media than newspapers, the radio soon began to serve as a means of entertainment, which to that point had remained connected tightly to transportation. The War of the Worlds broadcast was instrumental in highlighting the power that radio had over the public, illustrating that a convergence between media and reality had begun (Carey, 2010).
Television represented the next phase of technological evolution, being a form of radio with pictures. Visual images are processed more quickly than words (Carey, 2010), so this new medium became even more powerful than the previous ones. Media events became more frequent and over time television would increasingly blend reality and media, to the point where today many take what they see on television as reality even when it is not (Carey, 2010).
The Internet began as an extension of the telephone, but has quickly become merged with both television and radio as a multimedia platform. The speed at which information is transmitted is equally fast, the world of the Internet even more real, and the volume of information and the pace at which new information is even greater. This latter point is due to the fact that for the first time since the invention of the telephone, a new media form has emerged wherein the participant is able to create his or her own media experience. The Internet therefore represents a move away from passive media and back towards the active media forms that the telegraph and telephone were. This convergence of multiple data types with multiple degrees of passivity/activity has lent the Internet far greater power than other previous media forms. Yet, every major aspect of the Internet builds on the strengths of those prior media forms.
The development of technology has allowed for cultural acceleration, as each media form starting with the telegraph represents an improvement in the speed and/or scope of communication (Carey, 2010). The telegraph separated transportation from communication, which was the first step. The telephone increased speed further, and wireless telegraph set the foundation for later wireless technologies. Radio and television, for example, were based on wireless broadcast, which enabled communications to reach a broader audience. Where the telephone and telegraph introduced an accelerated pace to communications, the impacts of any one given communication were individual. News of the Titanic sinking, for example, was carried through a network of different messages on different media (Carey, 2010). Such large-scale impacts of communication on society became commonplace with radio. Television had yet more potency as a communications medium, the result being further cultural acceleration simply because the images contained in television had more direct impact on the audience.
The Internet represents a convergence of all of these forms, and the result is even greater cultural acceleration. In modern society, information overload can occur (Carey, 2010) because the human body and mind has yet to catch up to the rapid pace of information, which today travels not only at high speed, but also contains the full wealth of content that has been developed over the past hundred-plus years since the separation of transportation and communication began.
For most of the time period since the invention of the telegraph, a significant portion of communication still relied on elements of transportation. Telephones still required wires, televisions still required plugs and cables. Modern communication has dispensed with the limits of transportation almost entirely — mobile devices and high-speed wireless are the norm. Friends in the same room send text messages to one another, indicating a mindset among those who have grown in this world that location is entirely irrelevant now to the choice of communication media. Whereas the media choice was once dependent on location because in-person contact was preferred if available, today that is no longer the case. The separation of transportation and communication is nearly complete today. The implications of this for society — aside from further cultural acceleration — can be found by examining the trends that have developed in communication and media beginning at the time when transportation and communication were first separated.
The telegraph remains relevant today because it altered forever the way that humans view communication. No longer was communication constrained by location. Technological advances since the telegraph has each built upon this theme, each advance offering different benefits and resulting in cultural acceleration. The modern-day convergence of these different technologies has resulted in the near total elimination of location from communication, and this promises to accelerate our culture even further. In addition, modern technology has synthesized the role of the audience, returning it from passivity to a more creative role. Not only are we in thrall to media events, we now have the power to create those events for ourselves, becoming participants in the reality that we have created, which moves us to a more comprehensive blurring of reality and media than seen before.
Carey, J. (2010). Electricity creates the wired world. In possession of the author.
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