Wiring to the Future

The current debate over the so-called cyberstream, the data highway that futurists promise will lead us to a technoutopia, has many people bewildered, so dense is it with rhetoric and empty assertion. This is not surprising: most of the debate is filled by boosters of gadgetry on the one hand, by neo-Luddites on the other. Neither side has quite figured out the real, beneficial uses of a broadened information network (they are many, although the vaunted 500 TV channels of times to come are not among them), and neither has identified some of the real problems associated with a nation of computer-monitor zombies.

Ecclesiastes has already reminded us that there is nothing new under the sun, and our culture's headlong disappearance into the data vortex is no exception. In his thorough study News Over the Wires, the Israeli social historian Menahem Blondheim brings to life the swirl of debate over a similar technological transformation that took place in America a century before the present era of innovation and upheaval. Charting the growth of the telegraph industry and its effect on the course of public information from 1844 to 1897, Blondheim offers a cautionary tale of the media's power to sanitize political discourse, heighten tensions between contending groups, and serve itself before the common good. Students of the current electronic mélee would do well to read his findings.

In 1790,...

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