One of the first widespread uses of the telegraph, when it emerged in and then transformed the 19th century, was a mundane one: the sharing of local weather information. Corn speculators in England began sending terse messages to each other, things like Derby, very dull; York, fine; Leeds, fine; Nottingham, no rain but dull and cold. These were the first weather reports, afforded by our newfound ability to spread information, across long distances, instantly. And they were, in their brief starts and stops, revolutionary. In his wonderful book The Information, James Gleick describes the unintended epistemic effects of those little weather updates: “The telegraph,” he writes, “enabled people to think of weather as a widespread and interconnected affair, rather than an assortment of local surprises.” It allowed us, for the first time, to conceive of weather as a system: patterned, understandable, predictable.
It’s easy to forget, gravitational forces being what they are, that we are living in the midst of a similar revolution. Now, though, the impressionistic reports being sent—fine, dull, very dull—are of ourselves, and the systems being revealed are human ones. It’s cliché to talk about the Internet’s capacity to democratize culture and give voice to the voiceless and nullify the vagaries of geographical distance; such sweeping niceties, though, are convenient euphemisms for the effects of life lived in, as it were, interesting times. We have marched through most of our history, as a default, mostly mysterious to each other, closed off by walls not just of distance, but of flesh and bone. We have been tragically, and also conveniently, limited in our understanding of what it’s like—what it feels like, intimately and mundanely—to be somebody else. This has been a source of anxiety and agony and poetry and pretty much every song ever written by Taylor Swift; it has also defined our social contracts. We have been locked, together, in a bond of broken silences, wandering and wondering and forced to trust in the tenuous connection between what we say and what we think.