Forward into the past

According to its advocates and critics, the spread of the Internet is ushering in an information revolution unprecedented in human history, with the power to transform our entire social structure, but with the equal potential to open a gulf between the haves and the have-nots of the Information Age.

The only problem with this argument is that this revolution is not unprecedented. Actually, there are two very good earlier examples of information revolutions that produced similar transformations and similar problems.

The first of these is the one started by Johannes Gutenberg. His introduction of movable type made the mass production of books possible. Before that, knowledge was the province of a class of scribes who copied books by hand. But with movable type, books became the newest high-tech communications method, and people all over Europe were amazed by them much as we are amazed that we can send e-mail from Philadelphia to Taipei within minutes.

The spread of books also gave rise to a new class of European scientists who communicated much more quickly and easily than they had in the past. In addition, improved postal services allowed physicists in Milan to send letters to their counterparts in London in two days — a record our modern postal services have not improved on.

The first wired world

An even better parallel to the Internet is the invention of the telegraph in the 19th century. This was the first global communications technology, one that followed the British Empire as it expanded around the world. But unlike the book, the telegraph opened a technology gap: a government official in London could wire an official in Delhi and receive a response in hours, but it still took days to communicate with rural Scotland. The telegraph, as it turned out, benefited the metropolitan power first of all.

While the Internet began as a military project, the telegraph was a state-sponsored and commercial enterprise. But the Internet has changed its character very quickly, and today all the hype is about e-commerce. And what e-commerce has done in part is bring back a 19th-century phenomenon – mail order. Just as a 19th-century farmer would look in the Sears, Roebuck catalog, then send a form to a central warehouse to get the goods he wanted, today’s Net-surfer looks in an electronic catalog, then with a few mouse clicks, places an order with a central warehouse for goods that arrive by mail.

Where are the women?

As with the telegraph and telephone, the Internet also raises issues of gender. The telegraph and telephone bought with them the widespread entry of women into the urban workforce. Around 1900, roughly one out of ten telegraph operators in the United States was female. For them, it was usually a dead-end occupation, while their male colleagues had prospects of advancing on the hierarchical ladder.

The builders of the telephone network had a more convenient excuse for feminizing their workforce: they argued that since the sound of a woman’s voice was more pleasant, it was only natural that women should work the switchboards.

And for those families rich enough to afford one, the telephone also widened the social circles of previously-isolated rural women much the way the Internet has opened the world up to Third World residents fortunate enough to have access.

Yet most of the people inhabiting cyberspace today are male. Is this because culturally-defined roles lead men to explore the Internet and women to shun it? An inherently technological explanation for this disparity does not seem sufficient. We don’t have any good answers to these questions yet. But it should be clear already that the only thing that’s unprecedented about this third information revolution is its technological form, not its substance.

Thomas Zeller is a visiting assistant professor of history and sociology of science. He led a freshman proseminar on “Gutenberg and the Internet” during New Student Orientation and will teach a course entitled ”The Information Age” this year.

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Originally published on September 14, 2000