01 October 1998

Media fall along the path of progress

Over the summer break, Lovelace found time for leisure reading, and was much moved by Mr Keith Roberts’ alternate-history novel Pavane, a haunting work of speculative fiction recalling the timeless Wessex of Thomas Hardy. Her friend Babbage, however, was far more interested in its technical merits, and praised one section, The Signaller, for its accurate depiction of a mechanical semaphore network.

By Lovelace’s adulthood, semaphore stations had been superseded by the electric telegraph, now gaining just recognition as a precursor to modern data communications. This autumn, Walker & Company publishes The Victorian Internet by Mr Tom Standage, which explores how telegraphy caused its own radical ‘information explosion’ in the last century.

The electric telegraph was, however, built upon earlier techniques. Lovelace was fascinated to read an online book called The Early History of Data Networks (http://www.it.kth.se/docs/early_net). The authors, Dr Gerard J Holzmann and Professor Björn Pehrson, discuss communication by beacons, mirrors, flags and mechanical semaphore chains. They find, by the early 1800s, the basics of modern digital data transfer protocols, such as ‘handshaking’, data packets, route encoding, and error checking. It seems, as Ecclesiastes reminds us, that “there is no new thing under the sun”.

But such continuity is by no means inevitable. Even over the last decade, the dominance of the digital Analytical Engine has progressively driven out analogue methods in telephony, musical reproduction and television. From the dawn of written history, the road of progress is littered with such ‘dead media’, a term coined by science fiction author Mr Bruce Sterling, who has created an excellent historical compilation at "http://griffinmultimedia.edu/~deadmedia/". We may find the Incas’ knotted-wool quipu, cuneiform, floral codes, or the wax-cylinder gramophone quaint compared to a hard disk or a burst of telemetry data from a deep space probe. But all media are conceptually identical in carrying packets of data, and the dead may shed light on the living.

Lovelace is very much in sympathy with the view of Soviet historian Mr Roy Medvedyev, that we can learn as much of our destination from the road by which we arrived (and even from the turnings which we did not take) as from our present position. Asking why, in the past, we took one path and abandoned another, why we opened this gate and not that, can be a valuable mirror on the present.