Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Society and Technology--E-Mail, Telegraphs, Pneumatic Tubes and Frequent Snail Mail

Like many other people, I am a part of an email group and receive regular messages. Because I am about as sharp as, say, an eight-year-old on the computer, I’m careful to reply only to the sender.  Some people reply to the group inadvertently, which makes for good times. Receiving messages intended for someone else really seems to bother some people on email; perhaps I am a trifle voyeuristic, but I enjoy reading other people’s email.  It gets really fun when people don’t recognize the sender and then send more messages to the entire group, frequently creating a cascading effect that can lock up a system for days.  My school system email with thousands of users went down for the better part of a day as a result of one unknown email sent to everyone. I’ve heard other people say the same thing. The solution, of course, is not to reply to the email, or, if you’re bothered by it that much, delete it before you read it. I also know people who are inordinately bothered by spam, the junk mail of the internet.  That’s also a case of deleting, although I think I don’t receive as much spam as some people do.

E-mail is fairly handy since it’s fast and easy to use. You can also send messages to groups of people (see above--and I know--I am a technological genius with such observations).  I remember when the preferred method of notification of numbers of people  was the telephone tree. Not a pretty sight, and not that reliable.

The internet has certainly changed our lives. In the bad old days research was done by going to the library, poring through books and magazines and taking notes on the information on aptly named note cards. When I had a serious term paper to do, I had a note card box I carried around with the information on cards in it. It was probably an incredibly geeky thing to do, even then, but it kept me from losing the cards.  When it was time to write the paper, I laid the cards out on the floor of the basement and had a huge living outline.  One time my mom opened the door to the outside and the wind blew my outline away.  It seemed somehow like a parable.

I’ve just finished reading a book by Tom Standage called The Victorian Internet. He argues that the telegraph in the nineteenth century functioned much like the internet does in our day. (In another book, he says that coffee houses in seventeenth century England functioned like the internet.  The man is crazy for seeing the internet behind every bush.)  I’m not totally convinced since the telegraph required trained operators at both ends to send and receive messages, but he does have a lot of cool information about the telegraph system. For one thing, operators could recognize each other by the way they manipulated the key. The telegraph network consisted of branch lines which fed into an office, which retransmitted the message on another branch line to its final destination.  In some cases, there were several central offices in a city, and the  messages had to be delivered to another office, using messengers.  This wasn’t the speediest method in the world, so telegraph companies built pneumatic tubes to transfer messages between offices. (You can see pneumatic systems at work in bank drive-ins.  Department stores used to have them when they had a central cashier, usually located on a balcony high above the sales floor.  It was real entertainment to try to follow the capsule as it sped on its way.)  

These tubes seemed like a good idea, and by the end of nineteenth century, major cities had pneumatic mail systems used well into the twentieth century. Some inventors even tried a pneumatic subway system to move people in New York. It ran a few blocks and wasn’t successful. I would think a vacuum strong enough to move a carload of people would produce an unpleasant effect on the ears.

The internet is responsible for the decline in the number of regular (“snail”) mail items sent. Still, until we have transporters  a la Star Trek, we’ll need to rely on delivery services to transport the goods we order online. It seemed that I remember the mail being delivered twice a day and found out that indeed it was, until about 1950. Catalogues and ads could arrive more often.

There’s a delightful book by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows called The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society which is developed entirely through letters between the characters.  It’s hard to tell exactly from the book, but it seems that in London after World War II at least the mail came several times a day.  It was entirely possible to invite someone to dinner in the evening by sending a letter than morning and receiving a reply the same day. In late eighteenth century London, mail was delivered six times a day. Now that’s approaching internet status.

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