President Obama’s brief statement last week in support of net neutrality may or may not be enough to sway the Federal Communications Commission, expected to “hand down—spooky phrase—”new rules early in the New Year.“ The Internet has been one of the greatest gifts our economy—and our society—has ever known,” the president said, before “respectfully” asking the FCC “to preserve this technology’s promise for today and future generations to come.”
The Nation has been watching how new technologies interact with politics for almost 150 years. In September of 1866, the editors imagined a future thoroughly altered by the telegraph:
Where it is all going to end, and what kind of life the “merchant of the future” will lead, nobody knows, or pretends to know. From present appearances it would seem as if the commerce of the world would pass into the hands of a few great houses; that all the small dealers would be converted into clerks on salaries, and everything be done by a few vast combinations conceived by half-a-dozen heads, the details being worked out by subordinates, possessing only a limited responsibility, and, therefore, suffering little from wear and tear.
Sounds about right.
While not exactly at the vanguard of the technological revolution of the second half of the twentieth century—the political implications of computers largely (though not entirely) evaded our attention—The Nation’s very first article about the Internet is a fascinating read. It is in some places hopelessly (and hilariously) dated, but in others quite timeless.
Published in our issue dated July 12, 1993, “The Whole World Is Talking” was written by Kevin Cooke and Dan Lehrer, graduate journalism students at the University of California, Berkeley. (The author note at the bottom of the piece said “they claim they are not computer weenies,” and then printed their e-mail addresses. Tim Ziegler, now editor of Austin Post, also contributed.)
It began with a set piece about a man named Wam Kat, who “files daily reports on life in Zagreb, Croatia.” The catch?
Kat’s bulletins, which he calls “Zagreb Diary,” don’t appear in Yugoslav papers or on television. They exist in cyberspace. Kat types them on his own computer in Zagreb and sends them by modem to an electronic bulletin board in Germany. From there, his stories are relayed to computers around the world via the global mega-information stream called the Internet.
So the guy had a blog.
Cooke and Lehrer’s article is full of delicious little items like that: barely more than twenty years old, it already feels like an artifact from another era, one as inaccessible to us now as the early days of the telegraph. Even so, as with the 1866 article, it is fun (and genuinely informative) to read now not because of its irrelevance to the current debate about information and society, but because of its surprising relevance.