31 Jan 2011

Book Recommendation: The Victorian Internet

I’ve been hearing about this book literally for years now, and just got around to reading it this month: The Victorian Internet (non-referral link) by Tom Standage. I shouldn’t have waited so long.

Who or where I heard about the book from initially I can’t remember, but I was reminded of it by a mention recently on MetaFilter, had the ‘free sample’ sent to my Kindle, and ended up buying it while waiting in the departure area of IAD last week.

It’s not a long read, but it’s an interesting look at the history of the telegraph, which I thought I had a fairly good understanding of but in truth knew very little about. If you want a companion book to go with it (long flight?), I’d say that Erik Larson’s Thunderstruck is a good choice, although it’s a bit more historical-fictiony, since it essentially picks up a few years after the period that Standage examines in The Victorian Internet. (Thunderstruck deals with the development and impact of radio, mostly during the early spark-gap era.)

Anyway, Standage writes a nice little book and even if it does tend to hit the reader over the head a bit hard with the telegraph-network/Internet comparisons, they’re mostly apt.

Although Standage doesn’t come right out and say this, one of the reasons I suspect that the parallels about workers in the early telegraph industry and the pre-DotBomb tech industry (keep in mind, Standage’s book was written in 1997) work so well was that both involved skills that were so in-demand that employers were willing to overlook a multitude of issues in potential employees, and workplaces developed a colorful culture as a result.

But the real reason to read the book is as food for thought and as a counterpoint to the frequently “chronocentric” (Standage’s term) claims about the unique or unparalleled nature of current technological developments.

About the only negative – and this is expressed in the Amazon reviews – is that the Kindle edition is really pooly done. It’s pretty obviously just some sort of OCR dumped out there for purchase without even the benefit of a single read-through by a human. It’s full of I’s standing in for 1’s, and the drop caps at the beginning of each chapter seem to be a frequent source of problems. It’s certainly readable, but a bit embarrassing on Amazon’s part.

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