In our current “information age,” or so the story goes, we suffer in new and unique ways.
But the idea that modern life, and particularly modern technology, harms as well as helps, is deeply embedded in Western culture: In fact, the Victorians diagnosed very similar problems in their own society.
I just binge-listened to the six episodes of the first season of this podcast from Stephen Fry—it’s excellent!
It covers the history of communication from the emergence of language to the modern day. At first I was worried that it was going to rehash some of the more questionable ideas in the risible Sapiens, but it turned out to be far more like James Gleick’s The Information or Tom Standage’s The Victorian Internet (two of my favourite books on the history of technology).
There’s no annoying sponsorship interruptions and the whole series feels more like an audiobook than a podcast—an audiobook researched, written and read by Stephen Fry!
The tools that characterize a person’s time and place in technological history are the ones that a person actually uses, the technologies relied upon so heavily that they can feel like an extension of oneself. This is part of how technology can define a culture, and why sometimes you forget the thing you’re using is technology at all. Until, eventually, inevitably, the technology is all but forgotten.
Tom Standage—author of the brilliant book The Victorian Internet—relates a tale of how the Chappe optical telegraph was hacked in 19th century France, thereby making it one of the earliest recorded instances of a cyber attack.
Forgive my excitement, but this transcript of Charlie’s talk is so, so good—an equal mix of history and practical advice. Once you’ve read it, share it. I want everyone to have the pleasure of reading this inspiring piece!
It is this flirty declarative nature makes HTML so incredibly robust. Just look at this video. It shows me pulling chunks out of the Amazon homepage as I browse it, while the page continues to run.
Let’s just stop and think about that, because we take it for granted. I’m pulling chunks of code out of a running computer application, AND IT IS STILL WORKING.
Just how… INCREDIBLE is that? Can you imagine pulling random chunks of code out of the memory of your iPhone or Windows laptop, and still expecting it to work? Of course not! But with HTML, it’s a given.
This is the rarely-seen hour-long version of my Resilience talk. It’s the director’s cut, if you will, featuring an Arthur C. Clarke sub-plot that goes from the telegraph to the World Wide Web to the space elevator.
An alternative history of technology, emphasising curation over innovation:
We start to see the intangibles – the standards and ideologies that help to create and order technology systems, making them work at least most of the time. We start to see that technological change does not demand that we move fast and break things. Understanding the role that standards, ideologies, institutions – the non-thing aspects of technology – play, makes it possible to see how technological change actually happens, and who makes it happen.
A few years back, I was on a road trip in the States with my friend Dan. We drove through Maryland and Virginia to the sites of American Civil War battles—Gettysburg, Antietam. I was reading Tom Standage’s magnificent book The Victorian Internet at the time. When I was done with the book, I passed it on to Dan. He loved it. A few years later, he sent me a gift: a glass telegraph insulator.
Last week I received another gift from Dan: a telegraph key.
Now Phil has restarted the diary. He wrote a really great piece about what it’s like overhauling a site that has been online for a decade. Given that I spent a lot of my time last year overhauling The Session (which has been online in some form or another since the late nineties), I can relate to his perspective on trying to choose long-term technologies:
Looking ahead, how will I feel about this Django backend in ten years’ time? I’ve no idea what the state of the platform will be in a decade.
I was thinking about switching The Session over to Django, but I decided against it in the end. I figured that the pain involved in trying to retrofit an existing site (as opposed to starting a brand new project) would be too much. So the site is still written in the very uncool LAMP stack: Linux, Apache, MySQL, and PHP.
One area where I’ve found myself becoming increasingly wary over time is the use of third-party APIs. I say that with a heavy heart—back at dConstruct 2006 I was talking all about The Joy of API. But Yahoo, Google, Twitter …they’ve all deprecated or backtracked on their offerings to developers.
Anyway, this is something that has been on my mind a lot lately: evaluating technologies and services in terms of their long-term benefit instead of just their short-term hit. It’s something that we need to think about more as developers, and it’s certainly something that we need to think about more as users.
I’ve wanted to visit Heart’s Content (and Porthcurno in Cornwall) ever since reading The Victorian Internet, a magnificent book by Tom Standage that conveys the truly world-changing nature of the telegraph. Heart’s Content plays a pivotal role in the story: the landing site of the transatlantic cable, spooled out by the Brunel-designed Great Eastern, the largest ship in the world at the time.
Recently I was sent an advance reading copy of Tubes by Andrew Blum. It makes a great companion piece to Standage’s book as Blum explores the geography of the internet:
For all the talk of the placelessness of our digital age, the Internet is as fixed in real, physical places as any railroad or telephone system ever was.
In which the hacker tourist ventures forth across the wide and wondrous meatspace of three continents, acquainting himself with the customs and dialects of the exotic Manhole Villagers of Thailand, the U-Turn Tunnelers of the Nile Delta, the Cable Nomads of Lan tao Island, the Slack Control Wizards of Chelmsford, the Subterranean Ex-Telegraphers of Cornwall, and other previously unknown and unchronicled folk; also, biographical sketches of the two long-dead Supreme Ninja Hacker Mage Lords of global telecommunications, and other material pertaining to the business and technology of Undersea Fiber-Optic Cables, as well as an account of the laying of the longest wire on Earth, which should not be without interest to the readers of Wired.
Maybe one day I’ll get to visit the places being designed by Sheehan Partners, currently only inhabited by render ghosts on their website (which feels like it’s part of the same subversive viral marketing campaign as the Hibernia Atlantic site).
It’s that same attitude that lurks behind that most poisonous of bullshit marketing terms…
What a crock of shit.
Whereas other bullshit marketing terms once had a defined meaning that has eroded over time due to repeated use and abuse—Ajax, Web 2.0, HTML5, UX—“the cloud” is a term that sets out to deceive from the outset, imbued with the same Lakoffian toxicity as “downsizing” or “friendly fire.” It is the internet equivalent of miasma theory.
My friend @substitute suggested replacing every technobabble instance of “cloud” with “the Moon” and it’s changed my life