The Victorians: Time and Space

On Tuesday, I wandered over to a lecture on how technology changed the Victorian’s perception of time and space. Or at least that is what I thought it was going to be about.

As a concept it is a fairly simple one to explain – journeys by horse would have taken days could now be accomplished in mere hours by train. Written correspondence across the Empire that took weeks to arrive could now arrive in minutes thanks to the electric telegraph – an so on.

What interests me, and what I thought the talk would be about is the social impact of this huge change in speed of information – and the psychological shrinking of the planet.

Actually, the talk was more an entertaining 40 minute romp through the history of technology changes as seen by the Victorians, with just the occasional diversion into their impact on people’s lives. Interesting if you are semi-new to the topic, but not quite what I had expected.

The topic interests me, as we have ourselves lived though a very similar upheaval in society thanks firstly to the sharp drop in the cost of making phone calls, then the development of the mobile phone followed by the rise of the internet – again, initially as an information tool and later as a social one.

As a kid, I travelled around the world and had pen-pals in the UK. Communication took weeks as we certainly couldn’t afford phone calls in those days. A letter would be carefully constructed and written on airmail paper and then you wait for the reply a week or two later. Today I might fire off an email, or if you prefer, use an instant messaging application with about as much regard as flicking on a light switch.

Has communication become debased because of that?

I don’t think it has. While we may not sit down in the future and smile admiringly at the quotations of the famous writers of today, you can still write quotes that become famous – thanks to the retweeting of comments on Twitter, or “liking” status messages on Facebook.

My only real concern is that the witticisms will be lost as they are rarely written down on a more tangible format.  The one exception being the spoof Dr Johnson on Twitter who has managed to publish a book of observations based largely on Twitter comments.

However, my collection of Victorian era newspapers do show an interesting comparison with modern broadsheet papers and that is how they reported overseas news.  Thanks to the cost of the electric telegraph, long news articles would still be sent by post and take weeks – if not months – to arrive. Therefore, a newspaper would only report on a story occasionally and do so in some depth, and would not publish regular short updates on what is happening.

Today we expect daily or even hourly updates on the news and want to know what is happening even before it happened. However, as the news rarely moves quite that fast anyway, the media fluffs out the pieces with repetition and commentary from self-described experts or rent-a-quote writers. Do we end up bored by breaking news because it so repetitive, and would it be better to step back a bit and read the news later when all the facts are finally known?

I am as addicted to breaking news as most people, but I do increasingly find myself turning it off after the headline event and waiting for a more measured final article a day or two later.

That change interests me as I find more people turning away from rolling news and preferring to wait until the final analysis is published. A slight rebellion against technology?

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2 Comments

  1. Am reading an interesting book on this, called ‘The shallows’ by Nicholas Carr – about how our brains have changed since the arrival of the internet.

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