The virtual postman never stops ringing

In the latest issue of New Philosopher, I have an essay, “Speaking Through Computers,” that looks at how the form and content of our speech have been shaped by communications networks, from the postal system to social media. It begins:

Much modern technology has its origins in war, or the anticipation of war, and that’s the case with Google, Facebook, Snapchat, and all the other networks that stream data through our phones and lives. The Big Bang of digital communication came on the morning of August 29, 1949, when the Soviet Union carried out its first test of an atomic bomb. The explosion jolted the U.S. government, and the American military soon began work on a vast air-defense system, known as Semi-Automatic Ground Environment, or SAGE, to provide early warnings of air attacks on North America.

The system required a fast computer network. Readings from radar stations would be collected in digital form by mainframes stationed around the continent, and the data would be sent in real time to other computers at command centers and air bases. The output would be a complete picture of the sky at every moment. There was just one hitch: computers at the time worked in solitude; they didn’t know how to talk to each other. The Air Force called in the crack engineers at Bell Labs, and they solved the problem by devising a digital modem able to turn the ones and zeroes of computer code into electrical pulses that could be sent over wires. The telephone lines that for decades had carried the conversations of human beings now carried computer chatter as well. The melding of personal and machine communication had begun. . . .

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