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Opinion Technologies give velocity to stupidity, but they don’t make people stupid

The inauguration of President Abraham Lincoln at the Capitol on March 4, 1861. It took his inaugural address seven days and 17 hours to reach the Pacific Coast by Pony Express.
The inauguration of President Abraham Lincoln at the Capitol on March 4, 1861. It took his inaugural address seven days and 17 hours to reach the Pacific Coast by Pony Express. (Library of Congress)

Many 21st-century Americans are impressed, and distressed, by the supposed power of late-20th-century technologies, especially the Internet and social media, to shape society, and them. Two 19th-century technologies stirred somewhat similar uneasiness: The railroad and the telegraph, which were arguably as socially transformative as digital innovations are said to be, saved the nation from dismemberment, and fertilized the culture of freedom.

Ted Widmer, a historian at City University of New York, explains this in “Lincoln on the Verge: Thirteen Days to Washington.” It is a detailed record of, and meditation on, the president-elect’s February 1861 railroad journey from Springfield, Ill., to Washington.

In the 1850s, the rhythm of Abraham Lincoln’s political career had been quickened to what he called the “eloquent music” of railroads that whisked him around the North and into the West. And as telegraph lines marched six miles a day toward the Pacific, the velocity of news — and fake news about Washington burning, enslaved people rebelling, President James Buchanan resigning, Republicans sharing their wives, Lincoln being a cannibal — increased exponentially.

Early enthusiasts thought railroads would unite the country. Actually, railroads hastened the North-South divergence, but then became sinews of the Northern strength that defeated secession.

“From the moment that railroads charged into the landscape,” Widmer writes, “they offered a freedom to move that was inherently threatening to the old land-based order.” “Slavery,” wrote Ralph Waldo Emerson, “does not love the whistle of the railroad.” Frederick Douglass escaped from slavery by stepping aboard an already moving train heading north from Baltimore.

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Fewer than one-third of the new railroad tracks built in the 1850s were in the South. The prickly Southern insistence on states’ rights impeded building tracks across state borders. States had different widths of tracks; North Carolina trains could not pass into Virginia or South Carolina. While immigrants swelled the supply of Northern laborers, Southern railroads depended on slaves for construction and maintenance. Proudly preindustrial, the South had fewer mechanics, tools and schools teaching engineering. Southern railroads were built, Widmer says, “often with rails made of inferior metals — or even of wood — and with very few double-tracks.”

What Widmer calls “the acceleration of the 1850s” was “when Americans living north of the Ohio River began to live faster lives in every way.” And Americans began moving toward a shared system of time: The need to coordinate railroad operations necessitated ending the chaos of local times (Wisconsin alone had 38 different ones). And, Widmer writes, Lincoln’s idea of the national union gained strength:

“What had been a metaphysical concept grew stronger as it was bolted together with iron, copper, and steel. To be able to travel fluidly from one state to another weakened the notion that a state boundary was inviolate, and quietly validated a more federal sense of America.”

Railroads and telegraphs facilitated the North’s preparations for, and conduct of, industrialized warfare. Widmer notes that in March 1861, just before the war began, it took Lincoln’s inaugural address seven days and 17 hours to reach the Pacific Coast by Pony Express. Four years later, with the war all but won, his March 4 second inaugural address was read that day in California.

In 1858, when the first transatlantic cable connected New York with London, the New York Times worried that the telegraph might make the velocity of news “too fast for the truth.” Sound familiar?

Today, the Internet and social media enable instantaneous dissemination of stupidity, thereby creating the sense that there is an increasing quantity of stupidity relative to the population’s size. This might be true, but blame it on animate, hence blameworthy, things — blowhards with big megaphones, incompetent educators, etc. — not technologies. Technologies are giving velocity to stupidity, but are not making people stupid. On Jan. 6, the Capitol was stormed by primitives wielding smartphones that, with social media, facilitated the assembling and exciting of the mob. But mobs predate mankind’s mastery of electricity.

Humanity is perpetually belabored by theories that human agency is, if not a chimera, substantially attenuated by the bombardment of individuals by promptings from culture, government propaganda and other forces supposedly capable of conscripting the public’s consciousnesses. A new version of such theorizing is today’s postulate that digital technologies are uniquely autonomous forces in need of supervision or even rearrangement by government because they rewire the brains of their users.

Like railroads and the telegraph, today’s technologies have consequences about how and what we think. They do not relieve anyone of responsibility for either.

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