[Air-l] You Got Mail (before Internet)

Frank Thomas frank.thomasftr at free.fr
Thu Nov 14 02:13:55 PST 2002

Naomi and all,

I wrote my Ph.D. about the long-term evolution of the telephone system 
in Germany and work about ICTs usage. It strikes me when people argue as 
if live started with the Internet, or to take another popular theme, the 
Internet creates a global village. Technically speaking I can send an 
email to Tibet or Shangri-La now. However, technically speaking this was 
possible since shortwave radiotelephony in the 1920s, and the more 
populated world is reachable  in a reasonable time by telegrams and 
postal letters since, at least, the late 19th century.
printed matter, Kassel (central Germany) - Berkeley, late 19th century: 
took 2 weeks.
how much faster today ?? Amazon delivers more slowly

This says nothing about the fact that social, commercial, political, or 
military demand maybe don't exist to use ll these wonderful potential. 
Communication technology is socially constructed around physical laws in 
material artefacts and social conditions of use as well as usage routines.

After such a long intro, I come to my point:
the majority of telegrams in the 19th century were inner-urban, at least 
in Germany,
the majority of telephone calls during the first century were within 80 
kms, i.e. within the agglomeration the caller lived
today in Europe, 60% of private emails are within 50km from the sender, 
very close to the distance distribution for postal letters (Smoreda & 
today in Canada, the distance gradient for emails originating in Toronto 
is very similar (see Wellman in Science).

There is one major difference between my historic telephone and today's 
email distance gradients: the first concerned more or less business, the 
latter private communications.

In both cases however, the data show that, theoretically, the Internet 
might become more attractive as so many Chinese now have access to the 
web but as so few of them live in my vicinity, speak my language, and 
above all, belong to my social cercle of family, friends, acquaintances, 
and colleagues.

I think we need more research about social life before and after the 
arrival of the Internet before pretending that the Internet changed life 
so enormeously (for those who are connected). I am always surprised to 
see that among the social network Internet researcher community so few 
cite the empirical urban socology studies of the 1960s and 1970s that 
piled tables and tables of stats about (social) connectedness and 
compare them with today to see if things have really changed in private 



Naomi Susan Baron wrote:

>Nancy Baym's right: multiple daily mail deliveries were common in 19th c
>London (not to mention in other parts of the world, such as the large
>cities in India, well into the 20th c). It's also important to remember
>that besides such "public" mail deliveries, it was quite common to have
>servants, messenger boys, and the like (a street urchin would do in a
>pinch) deliver letters across town quite regularly. As the telegraph was
>introduced (and then became increasingly affordable and accessible),
>telegrams were sent across town, from business to business, or from
>business to home (for those wealthy enough to have home access) for many of
>the same sorts of reasons we send emails to local recipients.
>Naomi Baron
>Professor of Linguistics
>American University
>Washington, DC  20016-8045
>Air-l mailing list
>Air-l at aoir.org

Frank Thomas
FTR Internet Research
321, boulevard de la Boissière
93110 Rosny-sous-Bois
tél. 0033.

More information about the Air-l mailing list