One of my favorite books about technology is Tom Standage’s The Victorian Internet, a history of the telegraph told through the lens/mirror of the Internet.
For many people, the Internet is the epitome of cutting-edge technology. But in the nineteenth century, the first online communications network was already in place — the telegraph. And at the time, it was just as perplexing, controversial, and revolutionary as the Internet is today.
The Victorian Internet tells the story of the telegraph’s creation and remarkable impact, and of the visionaries, oddballs, and eccentrics who pioneered it. With the invention of the telegraph, the world of communications was forever changed. The telegraph gave rise to creative business practices and new forms of crime. Romances blossomed over its wires. And attitudes toward everything from news gathering to war had to be completely rethought. The saga of the telegraph offers many parallels to that of the Internet in our own time, and is a remarkable episode in the history of technology.
Standage is currently at work on a book called Cicero’s Web that draws similar parallels between contemporary online social media and things like Luther’s 95 Theses and “the Facebook of the Tudor court”. He recently posted an excerpt from the book about 17th century English coffeehouses.
Enthusiasm for coffeehouses was not universal, however, and some observers regarded them as a worrying development. They grumbled that Christians had taken to a Muslim drink instead of traditional English beer, and fretted that the livelihoods of tavern-keepers might be threatened. But most of all they lamented that coffeehouses were distracting people who ought to be doing useful work, rather than networking and sharing trivia with their acquaintances.
When coffee became popular in Oxford and the coffeehouses selling it began to multiply, the university authorities objected, fearing that coffeehouses were promoting idleness and diverting students from their studies. Anthony Wood, an Oxford antiquarian, was among those who denounced the enthusiasm for the new drink. “Why doth solid and serious learning decline, and few or none follow it now in the university?” he asked. “Answer: Because of coffee-houses, where they spend all their time.”
Sounds familiar, no?