7.21: Before the Revolution

The before-picture is relatively easy to sketch. Person-to-person face-to-face communication could be augmented by only a few "informediating" devices to permit communication at a distance. If you could not talk to a person directly, you could write to them using the postal system or talk to them indirectly using the telephone system. The telegraph, a sort of hybrid of the two systems, was used to a minor degree. The early dream of a telegraph terminal on every executive's desk was stymied by the difficulty of learning the Morse Code and the invention of the more user-friendly telephone.7 Radio, television and film permitted those few who could afford the high cost of entry to communicate at a distance with many other people.

There were only a few lanes in the before picture. They could be caricatured as the postman who physically carries your mail to your door after it has been physically carried by trucks, trains and planes, the telephone receiver through which messages can be "delivered" over wires, and the television-radio receiver through which messages can be "delivered" over airwaves. The fourth lane of film terminated at your local cinema.

This before picture can be painted using traditional methods by compiling statistics on the penetration and use of the telephone, the television, and other information-processing devices during that plateau in which the communication system was relatively stable. After the telephone and the television had reached an asymptote of over 90 per cent penetration, there was a long period in which the communications system remained essentially stable. There were minor variations on the basic themes - new models of existing devices, a gradual increase in the penetration and distribution of those devices - but no qualitative shift in the broad picture of the communications system.

7   Ithiel de Sola Poole, The Social Impact of the Telephone. Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press, 1981.