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Opinion Op-Ed

When news moves faster than humans can travel, it changes everything

Caesar, Washington and WWI generals all had the same limits: News could travel no faster than people did
The wired world has 'annihilated' time and space
How our culture of instant communication has changed us

At the start of World War I, a century ago last month, the Pacific Ocean was flecked with little islands whose only means of communication with the larger world was by steamer. Residents of American Samoa got a radio in July 1914, according to a contemporary article in the New York Times. Other islands waited month to month to read stacks of old newspapers delivered by sea.

Walter Lippmann's 1922 book “Public Opinion” starts with a tantalizing anecdote about the effects of time-delayed media. When a British mail steamer arrived at one Pacific port more than a month after the Great War started, the island's European residents learned that “those of them who were English and those of them who were French had been fighting in behalf of the sanctity of treaties against those of them who were Germans. For six strange weeks they had acted as if they were friends, when in fact they were enemies.”

It is remarkable to consider that only a century ago there were places in which men and women would crowd quays waiting for ships to disgorge old news. The summer of 1914 represents one of the last gasps of humanity's original communication system, in which news and people traveled at the same pace.

Julius Caesar's fastest way to send news was via a man on horse. More than 1,800 years later, George Washington used the same method. In 1815, Andrew Jackson won the Battle of New Orleans weeks after diplomats had ended the War of 1812.

Before the telegraph was invented and implemented in the 1840s, wrote Tom Standage in his book, “The Victorian Internet,” if a man picked someone's pocket in London or New York and hopped on a fast train, he was probably home free; no news could outpace his fast train. After the telegraph was invented, a thief escaping by train could be foiled by a message sent to the next station.

Fast forward to our time. On a Sunday night, May 1, 2011, President Obama announced to an audience of millions that Osama bin Laden had been killed by United States special forces. The killing had taken place a few hours before the president's announcement, at about 1 a.m. in Pakistan, which was nine hours ahead of Eastern time in the United States.

In other words, Obama told the nation on a Sunday night about events that transpired in Pakistan early Monday morning. The apparent time-bending was just a matter of the nine-hour time difference aided by instantaneous communication (Obama and his team watched the raid unfold in real time), rapid transportation (helicopters) and mass broadcast media that allowed the world to hear Obama make the announcement live.

When news traveled at human speed, there was a lag between what happened and when (and sometimes what) people found out about it. The shift over the last 100 years to a world cinched together first with wires and then with wireless networks is marked by an even more profound characteristic: instant communication. Instantaneity has changed us in countless ways. Here are three:

Colonialism and imperialism. The telegraph and the wireless radio consolidated imperial power. Before then, media historian James W. Carey noted, the world, and even the British empire, was decentralized.

“It was difficult to determine whether British colonial policy was being set in London or by colonial governors in the field — out of contact and out of control,” Carey wrote. “It was the cable and the telegraph, backed of course by sea power, that turned colonialism into imperialism: a system in which the center of an empire could dictate rather than merely respond to the margin.”

Arbitrage. Arbitrage is the practice of buying cheaply in one place and selling in a more expensive market. In other words, if pork bellies in the 19th century were selling for $2 a pound in Boston and $1 a pound in Chicago, the telegraph, combined with the railroads, allowed traders to sell Chicago pork to Boston. The telegraph reached Chicago in 1848, precisely the year the Chicago Commodity Exchange was founded to allow for such trading. Today, stockbrokers can make and lose millions when their trading speed is a 10th of second different than that of their competitors.

Time and space. Before the telegraph changed everything, each city had its own local time. Town timekeepers would judge noon by the sun's place in the sky and then set the official town clocks accordingly. Because of the differences in longitude and latitude, high noon in Boston and New York differed by about 12 minutes. To take a train from Boston to Chicago meant navigating many time changes.

Then, on Nov. 18, 1883, nicknamed the Day of Two Noons, the nation adjusted to standard time, aided by messages sent across telegraph lines. The United States was divided into the same four time zones used today: Pacific, Mountain, Central and Eastern. The rest of the world soon followed suit. It is no exaggeration to say that the telegraph changed our concept of time.

As for space (or, put another way, distance), in 1844, the telegraph's first year, the New York Herald asked, “What has become of space?” and provided its own answer: It had been “annihilated.”

And here we are today, when the lag between event and knowledge of it has been narrowed even more. Once, we stood on the dock craving the moment when distant ships would come to us with the latest news. Now, if we wait on distant ships, it is not to discover what is captivating or roiling the world. For that, we have the lightning box in the palm of our hands.

David T.Z. Mindich teaches media studies at Saint Michael's College and is the author of "Tuned Out: Why Americans Under 40 Don't Follow the News."

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Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times
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