I just finished reading Daniel Walker Howe's recent history of Antebellum America that goes by the title of today's blog. The book won a Pulitzer Prize in history and it is a mighty read indeed...all 850 pages of it. But the book, despite its length, was a great read; more a story than a dull historical tract. Howe makes the premise that two technology revolutions were fundamental to the changes in the United States during the time period he covered: 1812 to 1848.
The second revolution was in communications, more specifically the telegraph. For the first time in history, communications over long distances became instantaneous. While we often feel like we are living through the biggest communication revolution that has ever happened, I think it takes second place to the telegraph. Our expectations have always been for instantaneous communications. But when the telegraph was invented, people had no prior experience to prepare them for such an amazing technology.
The telegraph was used immediately by business for stock and commodity prices, the news establishment (it led to the Associated Press being formed in May, 1846), governments, and finally private citizens. Markets in cities like Chicago and New York could start to transact business on a near real-time basis. The railroads soon picked up on the technology to schedule the smooth flow of trains.
But I digress. The point is not to focus on the telegraph but rather on Howe's book and its central hypothesis that technology shapes history. Howe didn't say this but I might wonder if these two technology revolutions accelerated the gap between the mercantile North and the plantation and slave-owning South, making the Civil War all the more likely. Technology can have far-reaching effects, often created by the Law of Unintended Consequences. Today, the Web is creating similar far-reaching changes and we cannot foresee what the unintended consequences may yet be. It would be interesting to get a peek at the history books that will be written in another hundred years to see what comes of it all...or, maybe not.