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Dawn of the Social Age

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Maria Azua examines the social, economic, and technological factors that brought about the Social Age.
This chapter is from the book

Historic eras by definition can be fully understood only with the passage of time. Perhaps you witnessed the World Trade Center attack on September 11, 2001. It was a singular event, but we now recognize that it foreshadowed the long, expensive, and painful “war on terror” in Iraq and elsewhere, and it led to a soul-searching re-evaluation of U.S. foreign policy. Perhaps in August 1981 you heard that IBM® had introduced the personal computer, which made computing available to everyone for the first time—a singular event, but one that marked the beginning of one of the most remarkable eras in the history of humankind.

To better understand how we arrived at the Social Age, a brief overview of the shape and impact of earlier eras is vital. Perhaps most notably, these eras were marked by an ever-decreasing cost of both communication and transportation. Together these decreasing costs were fundamental to the eventual dawn of the Social Age.

We need to return only to the mid-nineteenth century to see the first seeds of the Social Age being sown. At an early stage of the Industrial Revolution, there was a massive transformation of the labor force. A shifting skill set naturally followed the financial rewards, which were no longer found in farming, but in manufacturing. Because manufacturing was concentrated in large population centers with deep labor pools, the bucolic, community-oriented farming lifestyle vanished for many. In its place were congested cities and noisy, overcrowded, and dangerous factories. Apart from conversations with neighbors or coworkers or the occasional letter, communication for these people was rare and expensive. Long work hours, low wages, poor working conditions, and poor transportation all made extensive communication an unaffordable luxury.

America, Connected

The events that followed transformed America forever and represented the first quantum leap toward the Social Age. The steam engine, an ever-growing rail system, and perhaps most profoundly, the advent of inexpensive long-distance communication by telegraph, all served to dramatically catapult both social and economic growth.

In 1849, Samuel F. B. Morse simplified bulky and unwieldy telegraph designs into a practical and easily deployable device.1 Not content with merely increasing communication efficiency, Morse quickly leveraged his telegraph technology into a revolutionary system that automatically signaled the location of trains, dramatically increasing safety on the growing rail system. Telegraph lines deployed at the same time as new railroad track ensured that telegraph would become the de facto communication standard of the early Industrial Age.

Coupled with Morse code, these extended telegraph lines served to provide a quick and low-cost communications channel. Although there was nothing intuitive about Morse code (short and long signals could be sent and deciphered only by highly trained telegraphers), it was nevertheless by far the fastest communication method of its time. As we explore in detail later in this chapter, the railroad safety features offered by telegraph and the broad deployment of the vastly improved telegraph technology are excellent examples of the way standardization plays a key role in lowering barriers to adoption.

Communication expanded still further with President Lincoln’s signing of the Pacific Railway Act, which was created as part of Lincoln’s ongoing vision of national unity. Subtitled “An aid in the construction of a railroad and telegraph line from the Missouri river to the Pacific Ocean, and to secure to the government the use of the same for postal, military, and other purposes,”2 the act was signed in 1862, and the project was completed in 1869, four years after Lincoln’s death.

For the first time, the East and West coasts were knitted together by rail and telegraph lines. Some of the first telegraph lines in the project were used by Lincoln to receive Civil War battle reports, and the general public used them to communicate across the country with loved ones. For the first time, people could stay connected quickly and at relatively low cost with people who moved West during one of America’s greatest periods of migration.

The monumental scope of the Pacific Railway Act is difficult to fully appreciate today. To ensure the success of the project, the government provided more than 175 million acres of land to build it on, 3 million acres more than the size of the state of Texas3 (Figure 1.1). Although government assistance was important, further efficiencies in the Pacific Railway construction were possible through standardization of railroad track and significant advances in the development of steel. The railroad was one of the largest and most important government projects of the Industrial Revolution, and it stands as an engineering marvel of its time.

Figure 1.1

Figure 1.1 The 175 million acres donated by the U.S. government to build the Pacific Railroad is greater than than the size of Texas. A celebration on May 10, 1869, at Promontory Summit, Utah, marked the completion of the heroic effort to join America from coast to coast by rail for the first time.

The competitive advantages gained by the completion of the railroad are immeasurable and quickly propelled the United States to a position of global economic power, which it retained for many years. Telegraph cables were soon ubiquitous across the United States, and in due course were laid across the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean, creating a connected world—via Morse code—for the first time. The Associated Press was a creature of the telegraph, formed by newspaper publishers who recognized the tremendous profit potential of instantaneous worldwide news bulletins.

The Pacific Railway Act transformed an expensive and often life-threatening westward journey of more than three months to just over one week of relative comfort and low cost. The act not only lowered transportation costs but also enabled vastly improved communication across the nation.

This lower cost of transportation and communication, enabled by the railroad and telegraph lines, transformed the nation and supported the collaboration required by the rapidly expanding country.

The Telephone: Talking on the Wires

The next phase of the Industrial Revolution, which some historians call the “Second Industrial Revolution,” occurred from 1875 to the 1920s, and represents another leap in economic and social development. Electricity, petroleum, automobiles, telephones, and new steel industrial applications generated a host of innovations. Together these advances enabled increased economies of scale through lower cost of communication and manufacturing; and more importantly, for the first time they provided workers with affordable transportation that made longer-distance commuting possible.

The combination of the automobile, electricity, and telephone created the momentum that generated explosive urban development. The automobile increased the distance and speed that food and other goods could be transported. Electricity powered a host of innovations, including electric-powered refrigeration, which also increased the distance goods could travel and their shelf life after they were delivered to a customer. Finally, the telephone was instrumental in maintaining connections over long distance in the new urban and dispersed society. These inventions changed society by empowering and freeing individuals to communicate better and travel farther and faster, at a lower cost.

Alexander Graham Bell’s telephone, invented in 1876, leveraged the established telegraph infrastructure to vault communications to the next level. The telephone established a new, low cost communication, which consequently supported further dispersal of communities into the suburbs and encouraged better long distance communication.

Now a community included not just those we talked with face to face; now it included anyone we could talk with on the telephone, no matter the distance. As communication cost decreased still further, it supported a rapidly expanding and more complex society, which in turn fostered even more societal dispersion. It was increasingly apparent that communities dispersed as the cost of communication decreased. Here was early evidence, now fully proven in the Social Age, that productivity doesn’t always require face-to-face interaction.

Rather than revolutions, the first and second Industrial Revolutions can perhaps better be thought of as the evolution of technologies from earlier, less-efficient— and less-effective—predecessors. Much like Darwinian organic evolution, technology progresses through a natural selection process in which those traits most useful to society are propagated and further enhanced with more innovations. Incremental advances occur as less-efficient systems are abandoned or improved—the telegraph becomes the telephone, and the stage coach becomes the railroad.

Technologies that evolve and constantly provide increased value will survive. Each technical advance is driven by an increased need for efficiency and effectiveness, which in turn is driven by the understanding that the delivery of increased value results in increased value received—revenue and profits. Henry Ford recognized the incredible power of innovation to drive profit:

  • We regard a profit as the inevitable conclusion of work well done. Money is simply a commodity which we need just as we need coal and iron. If money be otherwise regarded, great difficulties are inevitable, for then money gets itself ahead of service. And a business that does not serve has no place in our commonwealth.4

Incremental Change, Big Consequences

In some cases, the evolution of technology is so dramatic that little remains of the foundational idea on which the technology is based. But there are times when even a small incremental change can lead to an innovation with tremendous social and economic impact. Modern electricity represents such an incremental change.

Three main players are on stage for this historic moment in 1887. The first is Thomas Edison, the visionary “Wizard of Menlo Park,” with his 1,000+ patents. Next is the insightful businessman George Westinghouse, the chief rival of Edison, best known to that moment for his invention of a revolutionary air brake system still in use on trains today.5 And last is Nikola Tesla, the brilliant young inventor with the photographic memory and a reputation for efficiency in the inventive process.

Edison made great progress leveraging direct electrical current (DC). With DC, he created a collection of electric appliances and the first light bulb, all of which had lasting impact on the world. But DC was inefficient and difficult to transport over long distances. It was Tesla’s ingenuity that transformed DC to alternating electrical current (AC) and enabled electricity to be transported over long distances at low cost, establishing our current modern electrical grid.

It was a small change, but AC vastly improved electrical power. George Westinghouse bought Tesla’s AC patent, and together they created the technology that transformed modern life, which even today is used to power the world. Businesses became more efficient and mass production costs were reduced dramatically with a new electric utility enabled by the AC technology. Powerful mass communication devices such as the radio would soon become a reality.

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