Tinkering School
MLA Connections Blog

Can You Hear Me Now?

Diplomacy in those days moved extremely slowly.  Muscovite embassies took anything between six months and four years to return and report from foreign countries; and ambassadors often found on arrival that the situation no longer matched their instructions.

This, from Norman Davies' galloping and entertaining Europe: A History.  More than anything, as I've been making my way through this brisk survey, I'm struck by the impact of the differences in communication speeds.  Out of sight, out of reach -- and often for months or years at a time.  When your sons went off on the Crusades, you wouldn't know for years what had happened to them.  If your merchant husband made the tortuous journey to a city 100 miles away to try to strike a deal, you wouldn't even be likely to know when he expected to be back, much less when he might actually make it.  Time itself was a much fuzzier concept than it is now, with domestic clocks only arriving in the 15th century and watches in the 16th.  Think of the impact that this has on planning, on collaboration, on familial relationships, on one's own sense of one's place in the world and in the community.  What would your days be like if the only way that you could communicate with your sister who had moved to the next village over was by getting somebody to take her a letter (assuming you were both literate)?   A good friend of mine who lives on the Gulf of Mexico talks with her sister in Chicago by phone at least once a day.

Several years ago, when I was running an honors seminar on intellectual property and the Internet, I brought to class my Thomas Jefferson pen.  This is a replica of Jefferson's favorite pen, which he had sent over from the states when he was ambassador to France (and no, he wasn't able to put in the  order on his laptop one morning and have it delivered by FedEx the next day).  It's a dip pen, and a fine instrument it is, indeed.  I brought with me a bottle of ink and a couple of pieces of fine stationery and passed them around the table, asking the students to try writing with them.  They were entranced.  Then I held up my LoA edition of Jefferson's selected writings -- 1500 pages.  "And he wrote all of this and more with that level of technology.    What would that do to the way that you think about composing a letter?..."

Lynn's parents, from time to time, when we're traveling to a city where they know someone or have a relative will say, "Oh, as long as you're going to be there, you should give so-and-so a call."   When we were growing up, you saved long-distance calls for very special occasions because of the expense.  A call to my grandmother who lived 25 miles away was long-distance.   So if you happened to be in the city where someone you knew lived, it might be worth taking the opportunity to make a local call.

This morning, in my email, is a message from Bruce, in London.  There's another message from a guy whose daughter is planning on going to UAB and he's been asking me some questions -- I actually don't even know where he is, because it hasn't been relevant to my conversations with him.  Lynn has copied me on a message she's sent to Mark over in Beijing.  The assumption is that all of these will be answered within the course of my day. 

When Sherlock Holmes wanted to find out what was happening on the other side of London, he'd send one of his Baker Street Irregulars and maybe have some news in a few hours.  Find out what was happening in the midlands?  Have to take a train.

I picture my twittering friends walking down the street with a cloud of gnat-like strings of text buzzing endlessly around their heads.

Technology (and I am not using the word here as shorthand for information technology) is generally neutral in terms of its advantages and disadvantages.  Humans are extremely adaptable and what we do with the technologies we develop can bring us good or ill.  But I have no patience for those who chatter on about the impact of these technologies on our lives when they display no awareness of the long rolling curves of historical change.  If you're going to say something useful about the way the world is changing here in the 21st century, you'd better be able to empathize with the young woman who is seeing her husband off at the dock as he clambers excitedly up the gangplank to the deck of the Pinta, while she wonders when or if she'll ever hear from him again.


Comments

Brandi Tuttle

Information may move faster but I'm not sure diplomacy moves any faster nowadays.

T Scott

And even if diplomacy does sometimes move faster, that doesn't necessarily mean the results are any better. (Which is another great thing about Davies' book, by the way -- it really gets you thinking about what has changed and all that has stayed the same)....

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