Week 6: The Chicken or the Egg?

Although the physical mechanisms of the telegraph and the current format of the Internet represent an enormous disparity in technological advances, both systems share the common goal of a harmoniously connected society. But the readings by Katz and Standage imply that neither of these communications devices reached their potential.

Undoubtedly, the invention of the telegraph was an innovative technology that spurred the hopes of individuals to connect the Old and New Worlds. According to Standage, the telegraph was expected to create a global network that would result in world peace: “It is impossible that old prejudices and hostilities should longer exist, while such an instrument has been created for the exchange of thought between all the nations of the earth” (83). But as time played out it became obvious that the telegraph would not achieve such harmony — with or without its technological difficulties.

The “nerve of international life” displayed a short circuit from the start. Not only was it a great undertaking to lay the wires into the sea, the transmission was weak and signals were slow to pass from one end of communication to another. Granted, the system did improve with time — theoretically it had to in order to develop the Internet system that we are familiar with today. Standage refers to this gimmicky construct as the Victorian Internet, which took shape as “a patchwork of telegraph networks, submarine cables, pneumatic tube systems, and messengers” that combined to deliver messages (101).

While technologically it was no modern day GMail, it did suffice as a communications tool for the time. But what it failed to do was connect countries in a manner that embraced the whole of humanity. In fact the social impact of the telegraph proved to be nothing special. Standage eloquently frames this argument for us: “Better communication does not necessarily lead to a wider understanding of other points of view; the potential of new technologies to change things for the better is invariably overstated” (104).

Several authors have reiterated this argument over the course of the semester. Pariser, for example, claims that the Internet is concentrating power, rather than decentralizing it; thus leading to smaller, more homogenous groups interacting online. Likewise, Glaiyser claims that certain forms of government limit the potential for digital activism.

In this week’s readings, Katz snowballs off of the aforementioned theories — suggesting that personal influence is more frequently utilized and more effective than any form of mass media. He claims that only certain individuals use communications devices to reach out towards people and environments outside of their personal worlds. It is these “opinion leaders” who then bring their respective groups in touch with information they deem to be relevant.

In other words, most people rely on interpersonal relations as channels of information — not the mass media. Because of this, it is difficult to form collective action and, consequently, develop a harmoniously connected society.

Katz also adds that: “In addition to serving as networks of communication, interpersonal relations are also sources of pressure to conform to the group’s way of thinking and acting” (77). As a result, social groups become stigmatized and the connectivity gap between individuals continues to grow greater.

So, to the class I pose a sort of chicken-and-the-egg question: Do you think that social media has failed to live up to its potential? Or has society simply placed too great of expectations upon these devices from the start?





About caitlinesmith

Student at the University of Michigan.
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