Marcel Proust, Alpha Geek

Tim recently sent around a recommendation for The Victorian Internet, Tom Standage’s enjoyable look at a decidedly pre-Silicon Valley tech boom, although the inflated promises of that period (i.e., the telegraph will bring about world peace) remind us of some of the more outlandish dotcom-era claims.

Tim’s note about Standage’s book (which I recommend as well) provides a good reminder of how each new generation brings new technologies, but each generation seems to recreate older technologies as well. Streaming media, for example, reminds me of a service I enjoyed as an elementary-school student in the ’70s, when I would dial a phone number (and I mean that literally; touch-tone dialing had yet to come to my part of New Jersey) and listen to a radio station on our hard-wired AT&T-owned phone for as long as I could get away with it.

Turns out I was no trailblazer, as I’ve learned from my holiday-week reading, William C. Carter’s generous and rigorous biography of novelist Marcel Proust. In Marcel Proust: A Life, Carter writes that, in 1911, “Proust subscribed to a new service that brought opera, concerts, and plays into the home. For a fee of sixty francs a month, the subscriber received a theatrophone, a large black ear-trumpet connected through telephone to eight Paris theaters and concert halls… Although the sound quality was often poor, the instrument was a great boon to someone like Proust, who loved opera and the theater but who rarely felt well enough to attend performances. He often listened, even when the sound was so bad he could barely hear the words.” Sounds a bit like RealAudio 1.0, circa 1995.

So, gentle readers, do you have any thoughts on what from 100 years ago might be the hot new technology of 2008?

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  • There might actually be a case for cork-lined rooms… we’re very alarmed over minute amounts of environmental materials, but not yet openly discussing the damages of bad sound.

  • Teresa Nielsen Hayden has made the observation that the kind of community-at-a-distance exemplified by fanzines/Usenet/mailing lists/web-forums/blogging/etc. gets repeatedly reinvented whenever people have had the ability to disseminate their writing quickly, cheaply, and reliably and the ability to reply to each other:

    So, my bet is that the hot new thing in 2008 will be yet another version of this, probably in the context of some form of persistent group IM/SMS, because the youngsters just won’t use email except to talk to old people.

  • David Kebb

    Some deeper stuff on the Victorian internet and the cultural short circuits it created

    From the telegraph to the digital divide in Uganda, Kenya and Tanzania Pages 21-37