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Digitalization  25.07.2019

From Pony Express to Instant Messaging

Can you still recall what it was like? Just 30 years ago, if you wanted to communicate with an individual at a distant location, you had to use a telephone or write a letter that would arrive one to two days later. Today space and time are no longer the obstacles they once were. A historic overview – and a very up-to-date list.

First, a short retrospective: The first communication over long distances probably took place about 6,000 years ago. People in Africa were using drums to convey messages – with absolutely astonishing efficiency. Thanks to relay stations, the drummers achieved a speed of 160 km/h, although the content of the messages was limited. The Egyptians invented the first known courier service more than 3,000 years later. Boats were the means of transport for written messages, and the Nile was the main artery for their travel.

Carriages as a Means of Transporting a Message

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Over the subsequent centuries, messages mostly took many days or even weeks to arrive. This was even true for the postal services that were established in relatively short order and that more or less resembled the mail systems of today. Horses and riders were the transportation of choice for letters for a long time. Breaks, of course, were required at regular intervals – notwithstanding the legends of extraordinary feats like that of the Greek messenger Pheidippides. According to tradition, he ran from Sparta to Athens, a distance of 200 kilometers, in two days.

The key changes arrived in the 19th century – in the form of post offices. From then on, letter delivery no longer depended on a single courier. A number of individuals took charge of the letter, one after another. This represented a revolution in space and time for communication in Europe: A letter could then make it from Brussels to Paris in less than two days, and a recipient in Granada would still receive a letter from Brussels within two weeks. Technical progress, in the form of horse-drawn carriages, steam engines, and the internal combustion engine, accelerated the entire process. Today a letter within Europe takes just a day. If the recipient is in Australia – the other end of the world from Europe’s standpoint – it takes about a week to deliver the letter. During the 19th century, telegraph lines allowed something approaching direct communication for the first time, although the length of the messages was limited. It would have been quite hard to send a doctoral dissertation via telegraph.

Email Is the Most Used Internet-based Service

The telegraph was an astonishing development in hindsight – but digitalization has left it far behind. Strictly speaking, it takes less than a second to transmit an email or a social media message. Answers are typed quickly. The above-mentioned doctoral dissertation can be downloaded as an email attachment in a few seconds thanks to the speed of today’s networks. More than half of the people around the world have their own access to the Internet.

Thanks to digitalization, global communication has literally exploded. Nearly one-half million tweets are sent over the microblogging service Twitter in a minute. Worldwide, 38 million messages are sent over the WhatsApp message service. Google, the Internet search engine and world’s most visited website, processes 4.4 million search inquiries per minute – that’s about as many people as live in Rome. The electronic version of the traditional letter surpasses these figures: 187 million emails arrive in digital mailboxes per minute, making them the most important and most-utilized service on the Internet even today.

“People Cannot Not Communicate”

This enormous growth in communication plays a crucial role in another phenomenon: networks. The more people are networked with one another, the greater the amount of mutual communication. Internet pioneer Robert Metcalfe formulated this rule back in 1980. To those who are familiar with it – and there are a surprising number of people who aren’t – it is known as “Metcalfe’s Law. Early on, he recognized that the costs of a communication system grow in a linear fashion as the number of participants increases. By contrast, the benefits grow exponentially. Each new participant can communicate with anyone who is already networked. The law applies to both the fax-machines networks used in Metcalfe’s day and the social media channels of today.

“One cannot not communicate” was one of the famous quotations from Paul Watzlawick in the late 1960s. He meant that communication is not just an exchange of words but rather an all-encompassing phenomenon that even functions with mimicry and silence. Watzlawick presumably wasn’t thinking about the exuberant urge to communicate shared by the billions who use Twitter, WhatsApp and email. But his statement certainly seems to apply today.


Our current editorial focus deals with the way digitalization is changing our world and how Freudenberg Sealing Technologies is seizing its opportunities. You can read more about digitalization in “One. Zero. One,” ouer current edition of the magazine ESSENTIAL.

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