The Louisiana Purchase and Supersonic Space Jumping (etc.)

When discussing communication of any type, time and distance are the two key players in relaying a message.  Think about the Louisiana Purchase, for example – my students (and younger people in general… probably to an extent even us!) are so far removed from the bygone days of waiting for messages to arrive, that it blows their minds when you explain that Jefferson sent negotiators with a general plan of action to purchase New Orleans for $10 million… but that he had to trust them to make decisions on behalf of him and the country, because there was no super quick, cross-country way to relay messages.  When the negotiators were offered the entire territory for only $5 million more, they didn’t have time to write the president and get his blessing, because that could have taken months!  It was more like, “Hey, so… we spent 50% more than you asked – but we doubled the size of our country!  I hope you’re cool with that.”  Further example:  they officially signed the treaty April 30 of 1804, and it didn’t arrive in D.C. until July 4!

 Time has certainly changed.  Now teenagers freak out if their significant other doesn’t text them back instantly.  “OMG, r we ok?”  Distance is no longer much of an issue, as you can (basically) instantaneously connect with people all over the world – even in space!! (Did anyone see that crazy supersonic space jump back in October?!  I watched it live and thought “This is so scary and so cool!”)  I feel the world of today relies much more on these synchronous communications – where what we’re doing and what the receiver is doing are constantly being relayed back and forth.  It’s much more efficient.    

That’s not to say that asynchronous communication does not have its place.  A lot of subtle, simple communication, like between a mouse click and what you see on your computer screen, does not require a continuous loop of information.  Your little laser mouse will go dark until it is disturbed again.  It would be inefficient (energy-wise) for the mouse to constantly be relaying to your computer, “Hey!  I’m inactive!  Yep… still not doing anything…” and it would be inefficient for the computer to have to constantly receive and decode that information.  On a broader level, in the classroom it is much more efficient to send out an asynchronous message – such as a mass emailed progress report (click, click, send) – than it would be to have synchronous phone calls with each student’s parent about grades (the horror!).  Telecommunications has probably made its most appreciated contributions in the realm of productivity, especially in a classroom.  I remember my teachers having to hand grade, average with calculators, the whole nine yards.  And what about attendance?  We used to have to manually write Absent/Present/Tardy for EVERY kid, EVERY period, EVERY day.  And that had to be manually entered into a computer by some poor soul in the front office.  Now it’s all online, takes all of 30 seconds and is recorded digitally.  Talk about time savers.

What I think is especially interesting is that as we feel more entitled to faster telecommunications that transcend time and space in crazy-cool ways, I feel like it also affects our cultural perception of time and patience to a degree.  I remember playing with the internet on a phone for the first time thinking this is SO COOL.  I don’t remember how long it took to load, though I’m sure by today’s standards it was super slow.  Now if a page takes more than 15 seconds to appear like it’s doing something, we get annoyed at how “slow” it’s going.  Slow!  15 seconds!  Information signals traveling through space to satellites and back to our phones… in 15 seconds.  It’s mind blowing, but doesn’t impress us anymore.  And that bothers me.  But that’s another topic for another day!

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