This is the authors’ biggest and least defensible idea. They argue,
first, that the “industrial age” is over (we are approaching or in the
middle of “the last days of industrial society”). Second, the main
characteristic of the new age is that geography is no longer a big
constraint on what people choose to do or with whom. Cyberspace will
knit together “the diverse communities of tomorrow, facilitating the
creation of `electronic neighborhoods’ bound together not by geography
but by shared interests”. Further, “putting advanced computing power
in the hands of entire populations will alleviate pressure on
highways, reduce air pollution, allow people to live further away from
crowded or dangerous urban areas, and expand family time.” In short,
geography is no longer the obstacle it used to be in the old-fashioned
second wave world. This transition from the old industrial age to the
new one is so dramatic that, the authors conclude, “we constitute the
final generation of an old civilization and, at the very same time,
the first generation of a new one.”

I believe the authors’ claims about cyberspace making geography less
important. The problem is, wave upon wave of new technologies
beginning in the early nineteenth century have ALL made geography less
important; if there is one unifying theme in modern technological
history, this is it. The authors claim that we are standing in a
field facing a cliff; in fact, we’re proceeding calmly up a slope, and
the most striking thing about cyberspace is the extent to which it
continues long-established trends.

Beginning in 1830s England, the railroads were hailed as a means of
overcoming geography. (In 1856 John Ruskin complained that “no
changing of place at a hundred miles an hour” was likely to make us
“one whit stronger, happier or wiser”: the argument between those who
prefe the natural versus the sythetic or cyber worlds is old and will
continue.) The telegraph and then the telephone were hailed as means
of overcoming geography. The rise of the commercial airlines was
applauded because they made geography less of a constraint. (“The
telephone rings and I chat for a few brief moments with a friend a
thousand miles away,” writes the chemist and politican-of-science
Gerald Wendt in 1939. “It is trite to point out that Los Angeles is
now nearer to New York than Philadelphia was when this country was
founded.”)

The explosion of car sales in the ’20s, the beginning of superhighway
construction in the ’30s and the rise of the interstates in the ’50s
were all events that helped defeat geography. By the end of the ’50s
there was nothing strange about a a person’s working in the city but
living out in the green countryside (aka “the suburbs”); geography was
routinely overcome as never before. The spread of commercial jet
planes in the late ’50’s and early ’60’s took the same process another
step: people could gather from all over the country for a one-day
meeting. In the 1930s, the brand-new radio networks made people
palpably aware for the first time of breaking events all over the
country and, later, the world. Commercial TV, which began in 1939 and
spread rapidly in the late 40s and early 50s, had the same dramatic
distance-defying effect.

But isn’t cyberspace DIFFERENT from mere cars or airplanes or
telephones? Of course it’s different. It’s dramatically different.
It raises entirely new possibilities. Just as the new car in your
garage was a lot different from the railroad, radio was a lot
different from silence, the telephone was very different from the pony
express. The modern history of technology is full of dramatic
differences. And yet those differences are part of one
smoothly-unfolding story. But doesn’t the spread of cyberspace mark a
difference that is in some way bigger, greater, deeper than all those
other differences? I don’t know. Maybe it does. I’m willing to
entertain the possibility. But on the face of it, it seems to me
unlikely; and if you believe it, the burden is on you to explain WHY
without ignoring history.


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