Multiprotocol routers? Check. Back then, they translated between Morse code and scraps of paper in canisters shot through pneumatic tubes. Fraud? Check. Stock market feeds were being spoofed in the 1830s, back when the telegraph network ran on visual semaphores rather than electrical pulses. Romance? Check. The first online marriage was really a telegraph marriage, performed not long after the dawn of electric telegraphy. Continuous partial attention? Check. In 1848 the New York businessman W.E. Dodge was already feeling the effects of always-on connectivity: “The merchant goes home after a day of hard work and excitement to a late dinner, trying amid the family circle to forget business, when he is interrupted by a telegram from London.”
We’ve learned much in the century-and-a-half since then, and we’ve accomplished miracles that I think would amaze even a jaded Victorian time traveler. But there’s still an impedance mismatch between instantaneous electronic messaging and our ability to absorb, process, and act on the messages that flood in upon us.