What can we do about technology that brings the world together while also driving it apart? It’s a burning question today, but ours is not the first generation to face it. In the decades leading up to the Civil War, Americans first discovered that accelerating communications could widen the fractures in a divided nation, sealing citizens in their own bubbles with unprecedented speed.
On May 24, 1844, Samuel F.B. Morse tapped out a message on his small contraption of wood and metal inside the Capitol in Washington and showed how his new invention, the telegraph, worked. Within days, wires linked to his telegraph key were delivering news from the Democratic National Convention that had just begun in Baltimore. As an operator clicked constant updates to Washington, Morse read them aloud to a crowd at the Capitol, effectively becoming the first news anchor.
Journalists watching Morse translate his code realized that they were witnessing a profound change in the human condition, which some labeled “the annihilation of space.” The New York Herald said the telegraph “has originated in the mind … a new species of consciousness. Never before was any one conscious that he knew with certainty what events were at that moment passing in a distant city.” Who could imagine the possibilities once people could learn about any event anywhere, instantly? Morse soon demonstrated how his device could deliver both information and entertainment: he gave the U.S. government the first news of civil unrest in Philadelphia that summer, while chess players in Washington and Baltimore played one another remotely.
A darker aspect of Morse’s invention became clear 12 years later, by which time telegraph wires connected many cities and provided material for local newspapers. On May 18, 1856, Republican Sen. Charles Sumner of Massachusetts delivered a speech on the Senate floor about the divisive issue of slavery — Northern states had gradually abolished it while Southern states embraced it. Sumner mocked a South Carolina senator named Andrew Butler for his “incoherent phrases” and “the loose expectoration of his speech,” adding that there was no “possible deviation from truth which he did not make.” Butler was not present, but his nephew, Congressman Preston Brooks, learned of Sumner’s tirade and took action to defend his family’s honor. When Brooks found Sumner writing at his desk in the Senate chamber, he beat him with a heavy cane until he was unconscious. Brooks kept thrashing him even after the cane broke into pieces over Sumner’s head.
Thanks to the telegraph and daily newspapers, people across vast distances read about the caning almost simultaneously. But people were not all reading the same news, which was filtered through Northern and Southern editors. A witness quoted in a Chicago newspaper said Sumner was ambushed, “hemmed in” at his desk and beaten mercilessly until he “had by a great effort torn [his] desk from its fastenings, and then he pitched forward insensible on the floor.”
A correspondent for South Carolina’s Charleston Courier, however, all but rolled his eyes. “The telegraph has already spread a thousand and one stories about this transaction,” he wrote, many of them “incorrect.” Sumner “was beaten, it is true, but not so badly … he is not seriously hurt. His whole speech was of a character very irritating to Southern men.” A claim of fake news followed a pattern that politicians still use today: Brooks wasn’t really guilty of anything, and if he was, he was justified.
As quickly as the telegraph had spread the news of the caning, it spread the Southern reaction across the North. Readers of the New York Herald unfolded their papers to discover extended excerpts of the Southern press praising “chivalrous” Brooks for beating “the poltroon Senator of Massachusetts.” Northerners were outraged. And this was a new phenomenon in itself: public reaction to the news became a news event.
Today, of course, communication is infinitely faster and more widespread. But human nature has not changed, and the disturbing news updates and propaganda that bombard us are inconsistent with a slow, thoughtful search for truth.
Lawmakers and activists can work around the edges of this problem, pressing social media companies to block the spread of false information, urging the media to focus on stories that really matter rather than misleading distractions and sounding the alarm against foreign disinformation. Much of the task will still be up to us — pausing before growing angry at the latest news, waiting to see if it really is news, slowing down before sharing articles and allegations, allowing time for perspective, reflection and to make sure we’ve gotten the facts right. The devices in our hands are designed to make us hurry. We can resist if we are conscious that speeding us up is a form of controlling us. What’s the rush?