A tale of two technologies: The Telegraph and the Net

Dubbed the “Victorian Internet” (Standage 1998, cited in Dodge & Kitchin 2001, p.6), the history of the electrical telegraph mirrors many of the communication practices and experiences associated with today’s forms of networked interactivity experienced on the World Wide Web.









Both the telegraph and Internet posed major challenges for diplomacy.

Both the telegraph and Internet posed major challenges for diplomacy.

Like the Internet, the telegraph dramatically affected the efforts of political leaders to cope with international crises (Nickles 2003, p.79). The ability to communicate in real-time accelerated the pace of international crises, reducing the time available for diplomats to absorb information and make intelligent judgements in a stable deliberative process (Nickles 2003, p.93). This resulted in rash, ill-considered responses to distant, poorly understood events (Nickles 2003, p.92).

The 1852-1854 Near East crisis illustrates the effect of the telegraph upon diplomatic disputes. In mid-1853, when war between Russia and Turkey seemed increasingly probable, Britain’s prime minister and foreign secretary summoned a British naval fleet into the Dardanelles (Nickles 2003, p.95). This decision was made on the basis of a single telegraphic report from France, without consultation with cabinet or instruction from the British ambassador in Constantinople, who contradicted the dispatch (Nickles 2003, p.95). As a result, the crisis escalated into a major war (Nickles 2003, p.95).


During the Near East Crisis, the telegraph’s incitement to swift action resulted in hasty action and micromanagement (Nickes 2003, p.95).

Similarly, the rise of new information channels on the Internet has created new time pressures on thoughtful decision-making (Bollier 2003, p.5). As news becomes public knowledge quicker than ever before, policymakers are pressed into making premature decisions to create an illusion of control (Bollier 2003, p.5). For example, after the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370, the Malaysian government reported a ‘precise’ timeline that indicated when the plane’s two radar mechanisms shut down – a finding which suggested there had been a takeover in the cockpit. However, a few days later, the government backtracked and acknowledged it didn’t know when the communications system went offline. In this way, both the telegraph and the Internet have greatly impacted the quality of diplomatic decision-making.

malaysia-airlines-mh370-missing-timeline (1)

The volume and speed of real-time information available on the Internet has imparted a sense of immediacy and urgency that forces decision-makers to make quick judgments in order to reduce short-term uncertainty (Nickles 2003, p.94).

Issues surrounding the international institutionalisation of surveillance is also common to both the telegraph and the Internet. The use of the telegraph to transmit highly confidential messages was problematic as it required the disclosure of the contents of the message to a third party – the telegraph company and its employees (Lane 2009, p.24). This threat of eavesdropping was further compounded in 1875 when an international agreement was reached that meant all telegraph messages – whatever their purpose or place of origin, were subject to government oversight for national security purposes (Magder 2011, p.32).

International Telegraph Conference (St. Petersburg, 1875) - Port

Delegates from 17 countries gathered at the St. Petersburg Convention of 1875 to discuss regulating and intercepting telegraph communications data (Magder 2011, p.32).

Government surveillance and monitoring is also prevalent on the Internet. For example, the United States’ global internet surveillance program, PRISM, obtained extensive information on the live communications and stored information of users of popular online services (Kuner et al. 2013, p.218). Despite these revelations about government surveillance activities, government intrusion concerns have not directly influenced the willingness of Internet users to provide personal information required to complete online transactions (Dinev, Hart & Mullen 2008, p.227). Both the telegraph and the Internet, therefore, illustrate the way people are willing to sacrifice the privacy of their personal communication for speed and convenience.


The top-secret Prism program obtained direct access to the systems of Microsoft, Yahoo, Google, Facebook, Skype, YouTube and Apple.

Both the Internet and the telegraph extended the role of the public in the social and political arena. For example, in 19th-century America, weak communications between dispersed, poorly connected settlements rendered interregional interaction difficult, thus impeding public participation in politics and the enactment of public policy (Eriksson 2011, p.16). The telegraph, therefore, became a pivotal technology in increasing the public availability of political information, allowing different views and interests to be disseminated between regions and localities (Eriksson 2011, p.24).


Increasing social circulation of information coupled with expanding political and news reporting by means of the telegraph advanced the formation of public opinion, giving rise to the public sphere (Eriksson 2011, p.25).

As a virtual public sphere, the Internet also facilitates discussion that promotes a democratic exchange of ideas and opinions (Papacharissi 2002, p.10). This was evident during the Arab Spring revolutions in 2011, whereby social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter were used to call and coordinate protests and also for sharing information on issues around the pro-democracy movement (Benmamoun, Kalliny & Cropf 2012, p.26). In this way, the comprehensive communication networks offered by both the telegraph and the Internet helped mobilise more citizens to participate in public debate and discussion.


The use of Internet during the Arab Spring allowed participants to form a collective identity and a sense of solidarity (Benmamoun, Kalliny & Cropf 2012, p.26). This is similar to the way the telegraph fostered a stronger and more unified America through channeling a continuous flow of political information across the nation (Erikkson 2011, p.25).

There are many striking similarities that can be drawn between the telegraph and the Internet, particularly in terms of how the technologies transformed diplomatic decision-making, withstood government surveillance practices and facilitated the contribution of diverse voices to the political domain. Evidently, it appears that the challenges, opportunities and dislocations presented by both technologies transcend time, ultimately providing foresight into the future of communication.

A brief look into the ‘Victorian Internet’.



 Reference List:

Benmamoun, M, Kalliny, M & Cropf RA 2012, ‘The Arab Spring, MNEs, and virtual public spheres’, Multinational Business Review, vol.20, no.1, p.26-43.

Bollier, D 2003, The Rise of Netpolitik: How the Internet is Changing International Politics and Diplomacy,The Aspen Institute Communications and Society Program, Washington.

Dinev, T, Hart, P & Mullen MR 2008, ‘Internet privacy concerns and beliefs about government surveillance – An empirical investigation’, Journal of Strategic Information Systems, p.214-233.

Dodge, M & Kitchin 2001, Mapping Cyberspace, Routledge, New York.

Eriksson, K 2011, Communication in Modern Social Ordering: History and Philosophy, The Continuum International Publishing Group, New York.

Kuner, C, Cate, FH, Millard C & Svantesson DJB 2013, ‘PRISM and privacy: will this change everything?’, International Data Privacy Law, vol.3, no.4, p.217-219.

Lane, FS 2009, American Privacy: The 400-Year History of Our Most Contested Right, Beacon Press, Boston.

Magder, T 2011, ‘The Origins of International Agreements and Global Media: The Post, the Telegraph, and Wireless Communication before World War’, in R Mansell & M Raboy (eds), The Handbook of Global Media and Communication Policy, Blackwell Publishing, United Kingdom, p.23-38.

Nickles, DP 2003, Under the Wire: How the Telegraph Changed Diplomacy, Harvard University Press, Cambridge.

Papacharissi, Z 2002, ‘The virtual sphere’, New Media & Society, vol.4, no.1, p.9-27.


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