On March 7, back in 1876, Alexander Graham Bell received a patent for the telephone. Lots sprung from that -- a monopoly, patent wars, industry-creating innovations, lots of anti-trust suits, fortunes won and lost, etc.
But Bell didn't really appreciate the full import of what he had achieved. He considered it an improvement on the telegraph. He never imagined his device would end up in everyone's home -- and eventually in their pockets or pocketbooks.
The people who came after him saw that his innovation's true utility lay not in the devices themselves, but in the network that connected them.
That network ultimately collapsed geography, making the world a little smaller and bringing us all a little closer together. We have seen its effects in everything from bridging the distance between friends and family to the collapse of dictatorships around the world.
But even the greatest innovations have unintended consequences. Bell's invention enabled telemarketing, after all. But it seems to me that we are on the threshold of something even worse.
In some implementations, the Internet is not only collapsing distance, it is also folding geography in on itself, like a digital black hole from which nothing can escape.
With the right filters, we can avoid thoughts or beliefs we don't like. The global village is fast becoming a series of tightly wound personal cocoons, tailored to their occupants’ idiosyncratic tastes and opinions and connected only to others of like mind and passion.
Back in the olden days – i.e., the early 90s – most Americans got their news from three big broadcast networks. It was a fairly predictable, consistent news diet. For all its shortcomings, it fostered a collective intelligence and set the agenda for conversation around the dinner table and the water-cooler.
But with the advent of talk radio, cable TV, and especially the Internet, that has all changed. In 1993, 60 percent of the American public watched network broadcast news on a regular basis; now, only about a third do.
News viewers have fled to cable, where the content has become strikingly partisan. If Americans once dined on a relatively thin diet of news, they are now gorging on their pet opinions and arguments. The side dish has become the main course in most American homes.
And few people are passive diners. They’re sharing the feast with others of like-mind by forwarding, commenting, Tweeting, Facebooking, and otherwise sharing news with others. What we used to call the “news” is becoming a lubricant of young people’s social lives. But as in all things social, it is highly tailored to their personal tastes and opinions.
The Internet is a wonderful development in communications. You wouldn't be reading this if it weren't for the Internet. But it can be isolating.
Hopefully, you're not reading this blog just because it always reflects your own views. If that is the case, do yourself a favor and stumble over to the Drudge Report occasionally.
And instead of texting your friends, pick up a phone and call them. Synchronous conversation, that's the meaning of telephone day.