Utopias of Communication

“The more any medium triumphed over distance, time, and embodied presence, the more exciting it was, and the more it seemed to tread the path of the future … And as always, new media were thought to hail the dawning of complete cross-cultural understanding, since contact with other cultures would reveal people like those at home. Only physical barriers between cultures were acknowledged. When these were overcome, appreciation and friendliness would reign.”

That is Carolyn Marvin discussing nineteenth century assumptions about telegraphic and telephonic communication, not the similarly utopian assumptions made about the Internet. Then as now, the reality fell short of the ideal.

“Assumptions like this required their authors to position themselves at the moral center of the universe, and they did. They were convinced that it belonged to them on the strength of their technological achievements.”


“The capacity to reach out to the Other seemed rarely to involve any obligation to behave as a guest in the Other’s domain, to learn or appreciate the Other’s customs, to speak his language, to share his victories and disappointments, or to change as a result of any encounter with him.”

Finally, the original electronic filter bubble:

“Predictably, the experience of contact between distant cultures met few expectations of mutual recognition. For Thomas Stevens, a British telegraph operator in Persia responsible at the most personal level for bringing the kinship of humanity closer to fruition, the telegraph was not a device to facilitate contact with a remarkably different and fascinating culture, but an intellectual and spiritual restorative in a cultural as well as physical desert. ‘How companionable it was, that bit of civilization in a barbarous country, only those who have been similarly placed know.’ … The telegraph represented ‘a narrow streak of modern civilization through all that part of Asia.’ Europeans as far apart as two thousand miles, who had never seen one another, were well acquainted.”

Quotations drawn from Marvin’s When Old Technologies Were New: Thinking About Electric Communication in the Late Nineteenth Century (1990).

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