How the Speed of Information Has Affected Human Progress

Imagine receiving today’s Daily Reckoning…and then discovering our meandering correspondence postmarked for March 24, 2012. Or, to switch directions, imagine sending an email this afternoon…only to learn it won’t arrive until next Friday, April 13; a ten day delivery time.

Now imagine being positively amazed at the lightning speed of this vastly improved communication efficiency. Previously, it had taken at least a month — sometimes many more — for your (and our) long-distance notes and wandering tales to find their desired recipient…if they even arrived at all. In this case, a mere ten days — less than a fortnight! — would be cause for celebration.

And now, finally, imagine that the awe-inspiring agent of change, the driver of such a disruptive communications technology, the catalyst for this Herculean leap forward in efficient information delivery is…a pony.

Such was the case (more or less) on this very day, 152 years ago. Explains an article on The History Channel website:

On this day in 1860, the first Pony Express mail, traveling by horse and rider relay teams, simultaneously leaves St. Joseph, Missouri, and Sacramento, California. Ten days later, on April 13, the westbound rider and mail packet completed the approximately 1,800-mile journey and arrived in Sacramento, beating the eastbound packet’s arrival in St. Joseph by two days and setting a new standard for speedy mail delivery.

Depending on your starting point, even a humble, broken quadruped might be considered a technological breakthrough. And so it was when, eightscore less eight years ago, a pony took (only!) ten days to do what had previously taken months to achieve: deliver communication between the relatively established Heartland and the frontier outposts of California’s Wild West, itself a strange and largely unknown land for pioneers and Johnny-and Jannie-come-lately goldbugs; a land which had only “achieved” statehood a decade earlier.

Today, a ten day lag is unthinkable when it comes to delivering vital information to millions of recipients around the world. If you’re going to Starbucks to get a $5 skinny mocha latte on the way to your mani-pedi, you want your 734 “friends” to know about it now. Never mind that you haven’t actually met most of these recipients…or that they’ve probably “hidden” your inane and incessant updates from their “newsfeeds.” They ought to be alerted to your activities now. Not next week, when the caffeine has worn off and the fuchsia lacquer adorning your twenty little fashion-starved ungues has long since dried. But now, as in the moment you hit “Post” on Facebook.

If you didn’t understand most of the last paragraph, don’t fret. We had to look a good deal of it up too…though not, somewhat scarily, the mani-pedi parts.

Such are the times in which we live, Fellow Reckoner, where, given that the number of recipients is potentially infinite, we can fairly say that information travels faster than the speed of light (i.e., we can post our insightful observations/inane chatter on the web where it may then be viewed by millions or even hundreds of millions of people…simultaneously. Eat your heart out, Pony Express. That’s progress!)

The speed at which ideas spread is, history tells us, of vital importance to our continued evolution as a species. That means both the creation of new, resilient and, lately, increasingly decentralized political and social structures, and the destruction of old, brittle and, lately, centralized, vertically hierarchical ones. This appears to be particularly true when ideas course through the social veins of an oppressed and/or disenchanted citizenry.

Last year’s Arab Spring comes to mind, as does the “Revolution Lite” Occupy versions mushrooming across cities in the US and, eventually, around the world. Both are examples of “Open Source Warfare,” and both were made possible because of the dynamism and flexibility of non-centralized organizations. [Terrorism itself owes a great deal of its “success” to having leveraged the enormously asymmetric power differential between old-style, top down combat strategy and newly dynamic, decentralized “swarm,” “flash” and “disperse” methods.]

A sudden and unforeseen change in the tools used to drive and circulate these ideas has, time and again through the ages, shaken these rigid and brittle structures — particularly political and military structures — to the core, often to the point of outright revolution and eventual destruction (usually after the nation funding archaic engagement strategies enters — or, more correctly, eventually declares — bankruptcy).

The work of one Johannes Gutenberg in the 15th Century is probably the most obvious example of such a disruptive phenomenon. His epochal work in developing mechanical movable type printing paved the “information highways” for the Renaissance, Reformation, the Age of Enlightenment and the Scientific Revolution and, according to Wikipedia, “laid the material basis for the modern knowledge-based economy and the spread of learning to the masses.”

Not bad for a couple of hand moulds, eh?

Joel Bowman
for The Daily Reckoning

The Daily Reckoning