“The different nations and races of men will stand, as it were, in the presence of one another. They will know one another better…They may be moved by common sympathies and swayed by common interests. Thus the electric spark is the true Promethean fire which is to kindle human hearts. Men will learn that they are brethren, and that it is not less their interest than their duty to cultivate goodwill and peace throughout the earth.”
The above quote from an anonymous source is taken from Tom Standage’s The Victorian Internet, a book which offers historical and cultural insights on the invention and development of the electric telegraph and which parallels the emergence and adoption of the Internet over the past 50 years. The quoted writer is hailing the device, which in the early 1870s, after nearly 30 years of development, has only just reached its full potential as a tool for communicating around the globe. Standage tells of how the device was mocked throughout its development, how government officials and business leaders alike failed to recognize the its revolutionary capabilities, and how innovators such as Samuel Morse and William Cooke weathered failure after failure in their ongoing attempt to “wire the world.” The response to the telegraph’s eventual release, as described by Standage, was one of incredulous wonder and absolute awe. The new device was magical and miraculous, and hyperbolic praise touted it as a tool for solving the political, economic, and social issues confronting mankind.
Needless to say, we are nowhere near as optimistic when describing contemporary technologies, no matter how incredible their capabilities may be. Author Neal Stephenson, in a piece written for the World Policy Institute, writes that this may in part be attributable to a dearth of truly spectacular innovation and decries “a world where big stuff can never get done,” in which calculated risk-averse business decisions restrict creative thinking and limit us to solutions and improvements rather than new inventions. Stephenson is not alone in his belief, and the technological lock-in present in the personal computer industry, for example, is a testament to the way in which technological progress is hampered by commercial considerations, established device adoption, and learned processes of engaging with technology.
What isn’t mentioned in these discussions, however, is the fact that an apparent lack of revolutionary innovation may simply be a faulty deduction based on a new social method of perceiving technological change. When the telegraph was invented, the general public was not seeking a way to communicate with the other side of the planet. When the first automobiles were released, they were available only to the select few that could afford and desired the novel and unreliable contraptions. Compare this to our current cultural environment, in which social demands precede the release of new devices and elevated expectations lead to inevitable disappointment and frustration. Take for example Apple’s personal assistant software Siri, which has generally been regarded as an interesting toy and experiment that is still far from reaching the level of functionality it would need to truly change human-computer interaction. By the time exclusively voice-controlled devices come about, the public response won’t be astonished; instead, we’ll collectively think, “It’s about time.”
Where did this sense of entitlement come from? The constantly increasing speed of technological progress over the 20th century and into the new millennium (as symbolically and literally portrayed by Moore’s Law) has been no match for public expectations of consumer-ready products. Focus is directed not to esoteric scientific experiments (which no doubt would be to the layperson as confounding and unimaginable as ever), but to commercial implementations. As we move along the ever-steeper curve of technological possibility, we anticipate capabilities further and further ahead of the available practical applications in the present. The impossible becomes an ever smaller portion of mainstream conceptions of technology, reserved for concepts such as time travel and moving faster than the speed of light. And yet, perhaps someday concepts as seemingly absurd as those may reach the realm of possibility, and by the time we’re able to move through time it will seem like a natural next step, far from the shocking cultural coup that was the electric telegraph.