Last week I finally got around to reading Tom Standage’s The Victorian Internet, his history of the telegraph. One of Standage’s major themes is the widespread belief, in the early days of the telegraph, that the technology itself would somehow usher in a New Age of international peace and cooperation. After all, said one observer of the time, the telegraph was “transmitting knowledge of events, removing causes of misunderstanding, and promoting peace and harmony throughout the world.” “It brings the world together,” said another. “It joins the sundered hemispheres. It unites distant nations, making them feel that they are members of one great family. . . . By such strong ties does it tend to bind the human race in unity, peace, and concord.”
Standage goes on to point out that the development of the internet was accompanied by the same rhetoric: twelve years ago Nicholas Negropnte famously proclaimed that the internet would end nationalism and bring about world peace, and he was just one of many prophets preaching the same gospel.
From my editor Adam Keiper I now get this story by Jonathan Last: plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose indeed. Clay Shirky: “Twitter makes us empathize.” British PM Gordon Brown: because of Twitter, “You cannot have Rwanda again.”
Really? Twitter can keep people from taking machetes to their neighbors? And sending and receiving 140-character messages will make us empathize? The assumptions underlying all of these statements are precisely the same assumptions that underlay the praise of the telegraph a hundred and fifty years ago: that one group of people cannot have fundamentally different interests than any other group; that any conflict is the product of insufficient information; that the provision of sufficient information will immediately end any conflict; that familiarity inevitably breeds not contempt but affection and respect; that human beings are naturally filled with compassion and simply require a technology sufficiently powerful to release that compassion. But — alas — none of these assumptions is true.