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The legacy of Samuel F.B. Morse

On September 11 we were reminded, vividly and shockingly, of the significance of information technology in our lives. Widely separated groups of terrorists, their movements likely coordinated by a sophisticated communications network, attacked two of the great symbols of American power and wealth, the Pentagon and the World Trade Center. Transfixed by our televisions, we witnessed the events as they unfolded. No one factory worker, student, waitress, or president had an advantage over anyone else. All of us witnessed the horror together. And the simultaneity of the experience galvanized us, united us, and allowed us to grieve together as we never could have before. There has been no better illustration of how modern information technology has rendered irrelevant the seemingly immutable constants of time and space.

One could well make the argument that the rapid flow of information has been essential to the rise of the United States to world dominance. Could we have developed a unified and integrated continental economy without the ability to communicate rapidly across 3,000 miles? Would we enjoy our dominant position in the global economy today if we lacked the ability to communicate instantaneously with the entire world? And isn't there a relationship between our position as the world's only superpower and our mastery of information and communications technology, the sophistication of our communication tools, and the impressively widespread technological literacy of our people?

We like to emphasize the new and the revolutionary in what we do, but as an historian I tend to take a longer view. To my mind, the true revolution in information technology occurred in 1844, when the telegraph was invented by Samuel F.B. Morse. Before the telegraph information moved at the speed of a ship - six weeks from Europe - or a horse. The telegraph allowed information to move over wires at the speed of an electrical impulse.

When the first telegraph message was transmitted from Baltimore to Washington, informing observers in the latter city that the Democratic Convention had nominated James K. Polk for the presidency, most of those in attendance took it for a parlor trick. But shrewd businessmen quickly grasped that the telegraph would facilitate their efforts to conduct affairs at a distance. It was not accidental that the railroads - America's first large, interstate businesses - adopted the telegraph so rapidly and enthusiastically.

The problem with the telegraph was that it was elitist. One company monopolized the American market and operators needed special training in Morse code. Far more attractive to a democratic country, and a country in which people valued their privacy, was the telephone, introduced by Alexander Graham Bell in 1876. Like the telegraph, the telephone at first was mainly an instrument of business, a reality illustrated by the fact that the first telephone network in Dakota Territory was installed at the Cass-Cheney bonanza farm at Casselton to connect Oliver Dalrymple's headquarters to his outlying divisions.

In the late-19th and early-20th centuries the telegraph and the telephone were mainly tools of business, and only relatively affluent people had telephones in their homes. Radio, and later television, proved to be more democratic media of entertainment and information.

Radio and television offered simultaneity - the ability of many people at points distant from an event to experience it while it was taking place. With satellite technology it became possible even to witness an event on the other side of the world as it was happening. Radio and television helped diminish the gaps in American society between regions, classes, races, and urban and rural people. They were homogenizing media, pushing us all toward the same preferences in food, furnishing and dress, giving us similar tastes in music and the arts, imparting a standard Midwestern dialect to ever larger numbers of us, and giving us shared experiences.

In a sense that homogenization created a sort of equality in American society and thus contributed to the democratic ideal, but critics worried that the mass media encouraged cultural mediocrity and a vapid flatness in American life, a criticism captured by Newton Minow's condemnation of television as a "vast wasteland." Critics also noted that radio and especially television allowed the domination of American entertainment - and perhaps American thinking - by a relative handful of massive corporations committed to little beyond their own profits.

What the information and communications technology revolution of the last quarter century has given us is an extension and elaboration of what earlier media offered, but in ways and directions that could not be grasped just a generation ago. The Internet provides us with the relative privacy of the telephone, as well as the simultaneity of radio and television. But while those media encouraged homogenization, modern information technology allows us to express our diversity. Anyone can build a Website or a chatroom, and invite others to join. People with interests from bass fishing to barley diseases to the Bosnian economy can find Websites devoted to their interests and a ready-made community of fellow enthusiasts, and they can participate from anywhere in the country at any time of the day or night.

Modern information technology fulfills the democratic promise while allowing the expression of individual preferences and differences. Small wonder that Americans - so democratic, but also so individualistic and so jealous of their privacy - have taken to it so enthusiastically and have so quickly grasped its promise and possibilities.

-David Danbom



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