On Political Books

November/ December 2013 Scribimus Indocti Doctique Poemata Passim*

How the Romans invented Facebook, sort of.

By Justin Peters

You get the picture. I remember a much-loved college professor snidely dismissing the central conceit of The Victorian Internet, because, as he put it, the telegraph wasn’t built for porn. (He claimed that you couldn’t really understand the Internet without understanding exactly how significant pornographic Web sites and other unsavory enterprises have been to its technical development.) That might seem like an odd critique, but his broader point, I think, concerned the limits of historical analogy. The Internet contains multitudes. The telegraph was used for messaging. By contorting a modern paradigm so that it resembles some other, materially different historical paradigm, one risks diluting both concepts such that they actually become harder to understand.

The value of historical analogy lies not in the precision of its comparisons, but in the way it can add perspective to concerns you thought were yours alone. And, indeed, Standage capably demonstrates that hand-wringing over how new technologies are coarsening public discourse is as old as the Parthenon, if not older. Standage wisely notes that “the technology that is demonized today may end up being regarded as wholesome and traditional tomorrow, by which time another apparently dangerous new invention will be causing the same concerns.” In five years or so, all our anxiety over social media will have become anxiety over wearable augmented-reality devices like Google Glass—which, come to think of it, has a lot in common with the telescope. Both involve glass lenses. Both are expensive. Both offer users a new way of seeing the world. Tom, if you end up writing this book, I want a cut.

*Translation, from Horace: “Each desperate blockhead dares to write.”

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Justin Peters is a correspondent for Slate and a contributing editor at the Columbia Journalism Review.


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