Everything Old is New Again

Saturday, November 19, 2011
(NOTE: this piece was the midterm assignment for my current JOURN 201 class.  We were tasked to take one of the main historical subjects from our Stovall textbook and compare it to contemporary journalism/communications today.  We were instructed to write a magazine-style article that was limited to 1,000 words.  Mine came in at 994--if the Facebook entry was considered a 'graphic'.  The instructor's comments were "excellent analysis and written well".  So far, so good.  For my Twitter followers, the Williams interview was the one I kept 'tweeting' about back in September.)

Everything Old is New Again
Rapid communication continues to evolve from 19th century inventor’s dream

A patient waiter is no loser -- Samuel F.B. Morse, 6 January 1838

At first glance, these two messages appear to be totally unrelated.   The former is the first telegram transmitted in the United States over a short distance in New Jersey; the latter is the initial urgent posting to a Facebook page created by a 32-year old woman responding to a looming natural disaster in northeastern Pennsylvania.

The 1838 message was an historic moment in the evolution of human communications while the more recent one being a single status update by just one of over 800 million users and groupings residing on the world’s largest social networking website. 

Although separated by over 170 years in time and 120 miles in distance, these disparate dispatches are indeed linked through their respective sender’s aspiration for instantaneous communications in pursuit of their personal and altruistic goals. 

In the early 19th century, humanity’s ability to relay information in an expedited manner was severely hampered by the distances between far-flung regions and the time required to travel between them.  Line-of-sight optical techniques and animal-assisted transportation were the quickest methods for land-linked societies with ships serving as the only mode to transfer news and knowledge to regions separated by water.  For example, it took nearly two weeks for news to travel from St. Louis to California by Pony Express riders in 1861—a significant improvement over the 4-month journey required between New York and San Francisco via South America’s Cape Horn just twenty years earlier.

Inspired by the untimely death of his first wife--specifically the length of time involved in informing him of her illness at their New Haven, Connecticut home while away in Washington, DC, Samuel F.B. Morse gave up a lucrative art career to investigate then-cutting edge technologies for a means of achieving rapid long distance communication.  In that scenario, he departed immediately upon receiving word but returned to discover she had already died and was buried by time he completed his 300-mile trek. 

Borrowing from research into newly discovered electromagnetism principles, Morse developed and patented a single-wire telegraph system and, together with Alfred Vail, demonstrated that medium in Morristown, New Jersey with the message cited above.   In May 1844, a more robust version of the system was unveiled with the direct transmission of a message from Washington, DC to Baltimore—a distance of 38 miles—and this successful demonstration led to the subsequent interconnection of the United States and ultimately, through the use of underwater cables, the world.  The telegraph would serve as the dominant mode of instantaneous communications until the invention of a newer technology—the telephone—in 1876.

In 2011, almost all forms of interpersonal communications are considered ‘instant’.  The introduction of radio and television during the 20th century brought news and events concerning the outside world directly into people’s homes and created shared ‘moments’ where mass populations got to experience events nearly simultaneously with their occurrence (the 1938 ‘War of the Worlds’ radio broadcast, the 1963 assassination of President Kennedy, the 2001 9/11 attacks). 

Through a more recent innovation, communications between computers via the Internet, users could vault beyond the traditional content owners’ (television, radio, newspapers) self-imposed dissemination timetables and view information from a variety of sources based on their own schedule.  A new online phenomenon, dubbed ‘social networking’, took hold with the introduction of websites like MySpace in 2003 and Facebook in 2004.  It was through the latter that a modern day ‘Paul Revere’ set about to warn and inform her neighbors about a pending natural disaster and I had a chance to interview her a few weeks back.

Jamie Williams, a self-described ‘soccer mom’, watched local news broadcasts in early September with their dire predictions for significant precipitation along with the potential for historic flooding in her former hometown of Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania.  As a person who “didn’t want to sit back and watch her community be destroyed”, she took it upon herself to create a group on Facebook (‘NEPA Flood of 2011’) to provide information concerning the immediate dangers the torrential rainfall was posing with an eventual migration to clean-up and recovery efforts after the event passed. 

Her decision to use that particular medium rather than a blog or a message board was based on previous experience (she created several other groups and was familiar with the site’s capabilities) and Williams made her first of many updates on that September day.  Cross-postings on other local media Facebook pages and the ‘sharing’ of information through online friends brought the number of members to over 7,000 in a two-week period.  According to her, the page had over 1 million views during its first week with 20,000 active users from 14 different countries.  

With the saturation of media coverage by local and national outlets for this significant event, Williams felt that Facebook would be a more user-friendly way to pass along information already available at other online locations.  While devoting most of her waking hours to this cause in the early stages, she also relied upon information uploaded by other group members to provide a more personal perspective.  On at least one occasion, information on her site bested releases though official outlets by several hours.  Fortunately, levee systems prevented large-scale flooding of the more populated areas but those not protected from the raging river used the ‘NEPA’ page to coordinate community clean-up and recover efforts after the floodwaters subsided.

In the years since Morse’s revolutionary invention, humans have relied upon technology to increase their shared awareness and to reduce our species’ interpersonal distances.  What once took months to circulate to narrow audiences now takes fractions of seconds to anyone who has a web-enabled communications device and connection to the Internet.  The goal that this artist-turned-inventor originally envisioned has now come full circle on both the global and local stages and will continue to benefit those communities through the advancement of technology and the innovative inclinations of folks like Morse for years to come.

No comments:

Post a Comment