4 ways we connected with each other before the internet

We explore the early moments in Western culture that hinted at our internet future.
Letter-writing 'became its own genre' in the Renaissance, according to Anais Saint-Jude. (Minerva Studio/Shutterstock)
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We have all come to realize how important the internet is to connect with each other during the coronavirus pandemic. But before there was the World Wide Web, humans found many other ways to connect with one another — through roads, letters, and amateur radio. 

Each of these communication methods introduced its own challenges to social structures, many of which anticipated the challenges of the internet era, like information overload, access and the ever-changing social norms. 

So what do some of these old-school ways of connecting show us about the digital age?

Information overload of letters

A flurry of emails often has us lamenting the state of our inboxes, but Anaïs Saint-Jude said we are far from the first people to be overwhelmed by correspondence. 

"People in every era experiencing information overload seem to experience it as something totally new. It seems to be heightened when that information overload is largely accelerated by new forms of technology," Saint-Jude, who is the founder and director of the BiblioTech program at Stanford University, told Spark host Nora Young in 2012. 

According to Saint-Jude, the sentiment about information overload was prevalent in the 17th century, when rapid globalization and trade resulted in the proliferation of letter writing. "While letters were travelling the world, letters were crisscrossing small distances in high volumes," she said. 

Writing letters during the Renaissance "became its own genre," according to Saint-Jude, and people often wrote with a wider audience in mind than just the intended recipient. While letters were still generally exchanged between two individuals, they were often read aloud or reproduced for public consumption. "In a sense, when people are writing letters to each other on Facebook that others can see, it's very similar to what was going on." 

These similarities between 17th-century letter correspondence and modern-day social media can be comforting, Saint-Jude said.  

"If we can understand that we're not alone, that every era has had their moment of feeling overwhelmed, perhaps that alleviates a bit the psychological burden."

Roads as information infrastructure

It's safe to say that many of us, especially urban dwellers, take roads for granted — especially well-paved, accessible, free-to-use roads. That wasn't the case in 18th-century Britain, where most of the nation's towns and villages were connected by dirt tracks.

"It was utopian thinking in 1780, nobody had ever come up with such an idea," said Jo Guldi, whose 2012 book, Roads to Power: Britain Invents the Infrastructure State, discusses the impact of roads on British society in the 1800s. 

"It was a new idea about how capitalism could work if capitalism were going to diffuse the wealth from a few guilds, few metropolises where people were enjoying the Industrial Revolution, to everyone."

When British infrastructure was transformed into a network of paved roads by 1848, it brought about new ways of disseminating information. In her book, Guldi gives the example of Methodist Church founder John Wesley, who had used Britain's highway system to spread Methodist teachings into the nation's towns and villages.

In Roads to Power, researcher Jo Guldi discusses how the road infrastructure in 19th-century Britain contributed to social change. (Harvard University Press/Brown University)

However, the new roads also exacerbated class divides: upper-class citizens could afford to travel by stagecoach and did not have to interact with those who travelled on foot. There were also tolls in place to use some of the paved roads, making them inaccessible to people in the lower socioeconomic classes. 

The impact of the road infrastructure on British society in the 19th century has many parallels with the global impact of the internet. 

"The lesson of the early infrastructure state is that technology can indeed connect people," Guldi said. "But the design of technology is something that has to be governed by visionaries. Otherwise, the dangers of exclusion are real, and you could create a system that's just as fragmented as the slummified cities of the late 19th century." 

If we can understand that ... every era has had their moment of feeling overwhelmed, perhaps that alleviates the psychological burden."​​​​​​- Anais Saint-Jude


Much like what Facebook's status update window prompts us to do, coffeehouses in 18th-century London required patrons to communicate what's on their mind. Cities were growing fast, the importance of the court was diminishing, and in places like the coffeehouse, people of different socioeconomic classes intermingled more and more often. 

A London coffeehouse in 1740 wasn't just a place to get your caffeine fix - it was also a meeting spot for people of many different socioeconomic backgrounds. (Credit: iStock/Getty Images)

"You could see by the dress of somebody else that they might be of a different social rank than you were, but you never talk about it. You were expected to use a very formulaic type of language," sociologist Richard Sennett explained in a 2012 Ideas documentary, Flesh and Stone. "A coffeehouse was sort of like an internet chatroom. You want these strangers to interact, but you want to keep this orderly."

Thus, someone might come in with a small patch of fabric under their cheekbone, to indicate they are feeling rather flirtatious. Or, if they did not wish to be bothered, they would wear the fabric under their chin. "These are abstract signs, all derived from the theatre, where these patches systems began," Sennett said. 

He explained that the abstract stage language and gestures were adopted as a neutral middle ground for people who came from different upbringings, but still wanted to share in the common experience of the coffeehouse. 

Amateur radio networks as social networks 

The internet shattered the old broadcast model of "one to many." Nowadays, anyone can have a blog or a Twitter account to share their thoughts with the world. But before computers, two-way communication took place over amateur radios, also known as ham radios. 

Like the internet, amateur radio is a distributed information network, designed to be more flexible and responsive than big centralized broadcast transmission. And like peer-to-peer social networks, it allows for rapid communications among strangers. 

According to Kristin Haring, author of Ham Radio's Technical Culture, amateur radio also involves no strict social hierarchy. "If there's a 10-year-old who gets his ham radio license, he should be able to talk to the King of Jordan, who also at one point had a ham radio license. That was this flattening out of any sort of other social hierarchy, because we're all using this one platform," she said. 

George Dewar organized the 'lighthouse activation' in Souris, P.E.I., through which amateur radio operators made contact with other radio operators around the world. (Yvon Hachey‎/Facebook)

But Haring pointed out that flipping through dials of ham radio and finding like-minded people was more a matter of luck than connecting with people on modern-day social networks. "It's not like you could turn to a certain frequency, and find all the people interested in one kind of thing, for the most part," she said. 

Colin Newell, an amateur radio operator based in Victoria, B.C., echoed that sentiment. "One hundred per cent of amateur radio broadcasting is completely random, and by design and regulation, there is no such thing as a scheduled broadcast." 

However, he said there are networks of local amateur broadcasters who gather regularly to discuss local news or weather conditions, as well as their availability in the event of an emergency. In British Columbia, for example, this is done within a network called BC Net, which has thousands of members across the province.

"So that's a radio operator in every town of any size in British Columbia, and we can all talk to each other and hear each other as if… having a conversation on the telephone," Newell said. 

To hear this special episode of Spark, click Listen at the top of the page.


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