Krakatoa and Institutional Anxiety

I got back to reading Krakatoa this week – I’ve been about halfway through the book for a couple years now – and I’ve stumbled across a rather interesting passage. Bold emphases are mine, but you prolly knew that already; can’t think of the last time I saw bold in a book, save for titling.

“It took an event like Krakatoa’s eruption—which astonished and mystified an entire educated world—to underline the real revolution that [undersea telegraph technology] was visiting upon the planet. True, other events had already been recounted by means of the new machinery; and its utility—to commerce, diplomacy, and news gathering in particular—was in no doubt…This eruption was so enormous an event, and had so many worldwide implications and effects, that for humankind to be able to learn and know about it, in detail, within days or even hours of its happening entirely changed the world’s view of itself.” (Winchester, 182)

Sounds familiar, yes?

Winchester goes on to explain how the discovery/appropriation of Gutta-Percha in Indonesia (where Krakatoa was situated) was key to laying thousands of miles of telegraph cable on the ocean floor, as its natural latex allowed the cables to be significantly more waterproof and durable, which happens to be an interesting little story itself. But the cool thing, and the thing that gets me to my point, is the following quote within a quote.

“Since [1870, when Gutta-Percha was used to cover copper telegraph lines] the undersea cable had become fixed in the public consciousness. Tennyson had written a hymn to the romance of the idea of coded voices hurrying along the ocean floor; and so had Rudyard Kipling, whose brief poem “The Deep-Sea Cables” remains among his best loved:

“The wrecks dissolve above us; their dust drops down from afar –
Down to the dark, to the utter dark, where the blind white sea-snakes are.
There is no sound, no echo of sound, in the deserts of the deep,
Or the great gray level plains of ooze where the shell-burred cables creep.
“Here in the womb of the world – here on the tie-ribs of earth
Words, and the words of men, flicker and flutter and beat –
Warning, sorrow and gain, salutation and mirth –
For a Power troubles the Still that has neither voice nor feet.
“They have wakened the timeless Things; they have killed their father Time;
Joining hands in the gloom, a league from the last of the sun.
Hush!  Men talk to-day o’er the waste of the ultimate slime,
And a new Word runs between:  whispering, “Let us be one!”

(Winchester, 188-189)

This came as a bit of a surprise to me. I had no idea that Tennyson and Kipling were writing poems about communications technology, miraculous as it may have been in contrast to what had come before it.

Which got me to thinking about how hard a time I give (in my head at least, or aloud at work) to the folks who continually marvel at the state of this internet thing. And about the tone I’ve been noticing of late from those who write about the state of the ad industry, describing it as inward looking and most upsettingly insular. From what I can understand, it’s something that affects many industries and segments of the internet.

And why shouldn’t it? Aren’t shared interests (the reasons why people come together at all online and off) … shared for a reason? Wouldn’t it follow that people that love similar stuff would start to sound alike, think about similar things, and care about the goings-on of that community? Isn’t that the idea?

So my question: where does this come from? Why do [some] communities and institutions get so worried about their insularity and shared affinities?

My thought: we should all cut ourselves a little slack. If Kipling can write a poem about how great telegraph wires are, I suppose it’s fine if we get excited about the things we do and love. So here’s to that.

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