Webs of Copper, Webs of Glass

On the physicality of communications, old and new…

Over the past weekend I read a book called, Jefferson’s War, by Joseph Wheelan.  It is a surprisingly quick read, and a very interesting look at early United States history.  The subtitle he uses is America’s First War on Terror 1801-1805, and while discussing that allusion could occupy an entire long post, I am more interested in looking at that book in contrast with Autumn in the Heavenly Kingdom: China, the West, and the Epic Story of the Taiping Civil War, by Stephen R. Platt.  What fascinated me reading both of them, is the role that slow communications played in so much of what went on during both conflicts.  The Barbary Wars of Wheelan’s book took place in the era immediately following the creation of the Constitution and the first years of the current United States, yet some sixty years later, during the Taiping revolution (or rebellion, or civil war, depending on whose point of view you take), communications were largely confined to paper and pen carried along by messengers.  At best, during the Barbary Wars, you had ships that employed flag codes between vessels – semaphore at a tactical level was not a novel concept at the time, but incredibly limited in range.

Large decision points of both conflicts hinged on information that was weeks to months out of date in arriving back at the countries of origin of the European and US forces involved.  Being an English and Chinese-language-capable scholar, Platt primarily discusses British and American involvement, as well as giving an in-depth look at both the Qing imperial forces and the Taiping rebels’ records (such that are available.)  His account covers many incidents in the war where the fate of the Taiping rested on perceptions in Britain that were shaped by communications, some physically intercepted, some merely delayed in reaching London than others.  Wheelan, too, touches on several decisive moments where the delays in communication between the US and its naval forces dramatically changed the outcome of battles, strategy, and public perceptions of the war abroad.

What fascinates me about this is that the same sorts of “accidents” of delayed communications are not exceptional – if anything, the communications enjoyed by both sets of forces were still much more rapid and effective than those available to militaries, merchants, and decision makers of all eras of human history.  Today, delays of more than a few days or a few hours are considered abnormal – we find ourselves frustrated at having to wait longer than a few seconds for messages to transmit across the internet or to make a strong connection between telephone exchanges.  I find that one of the most difficult things for contemporary laymen to grasp is this incredible distance and delay in communications in history.  Sometimes I even find myself guilty of projecting the granted ease of sending a message nowadays onto situations in the past where even distances of a few kilometers could prove decisive.

We even see this in filmmaking and television writing.  I would argue that one of the big reasons for an explosion in television shows and films set in the nineteen eighties or earlier is because so many plots and tropes rely on communication breakdowns that require an inordinate amount of contrivance to render believable in a modern setting.  A missing person or a person running late to a critical “plot point” back in the day was entirely plausible and a regular feature of history and fiction alike.  Today, barring extraordinary circumstances, we are in constant communication with important figures in our lives and our world, for better or worse.  We rely on a network of communications that still relies on a grand, powerful, and redundant physical infrastructure unlike anything seen before – not even the Indian courier routes of the Mauryas or the Pony Express were effective enough to allow the interconnectedness we experience as a given today.

I will return to this topic later, and, I plan, in more depth in the future, but I wanted to capture that sort of “a-ha!” moment I had when I truly appreciated again just how much “the past is a foreign country.”  When we feel isolated today, it means that we have not had the interaction that we want with the immediacy we expect.  When we make decisions or carry out actions that can change our entire lives, we do not expect to do so blindly or without the resource of advice, be it from friends, family, and peers, or from the broad knowledge base of the internet or far-distant supervisors and managers in business and government.  Understanding the significance of that, I posit, allows you to better comprehend not only the past, but also the way that society and all its multifarious manifestations are changing from the depths of the Third World to the heights of globalized industry and science.

Il Giornale

On branding and globalization..

Tonight I want to write about the power of branding. One of the greatest complaints about modern commerce is about the international monopolies that have formed controlling many consumer industries. I am not writing tonight to judge them, morally or aesthetically. Rather, what I find most interesting is about how they are able to meet their markets and then, subtly and slowly, change them towards a more homogenized cultural norm.

I have been reading The Coffee-House: A History by Markman Ellis, and also being present in Qatar, I can see firsthand how both during the Enlightenment era and the present day, branding can be the critical factor in getting people to consume commodities that are at first glance exotic or imposing.

For my final project towards my MA in World History, I looked at how coffee went from being an oddity of Yemen, adopted into the Islamic world in a brief window of moderation during the Ottoman Empire, and spread like wildfire between the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries to become a global commodity traded in one of the most frenetic and demanding markets of the contemporary era. I will not rehash that paper here, but it suffices to say that the story is far more complex than any modern narrative of “appropriation” or post-modern angst over the subaltern, etc.

What Ellis examined was the English phenomenon of the coffee-house, from its origins in the Middle East up to the spread of Starbucks across Europe and the globe. What I think it says about the larger world is that franchising and establishing a comfort zone for people from incredibly varied backgrounds is a powerful force in modern commerce. To give a local example from Qatar, most fast-food franchises from the United States here in Qatar are administered by a chain called “Sterling Enterprises.” Not to be confused with the Starling corporation from the Tom and Jerry movie, this company uses the Pillsbury Dough Boy as its mascot, since it originated in a chain of bakeries, and controls properties from coffee shops to pizza joints, Burger King franchises to its own namesake sandwich shops.

The common thread is in the way that consumers want a “normalized” experience along the lines of what they “know” from air travel, studying abroad in the West, and spending their riches from petroleum and natural gas production in their home countries. It has, in effect, led to a situation in which the original Arabic/Turkish idea of the coffeehouse as a place to procure underage boys for entertainment and a place to discuss controversial topics of religion and politics has transformed into a locale familiar to anyone who has been in a Starbucks coffee from Tampa to Tokyo. Much like how firms successfully present American Chinese food in China to a receptive audience, coffeehouse culture takes a convoluted series of forms in Middle Eastern commerce based upon a long-disappeared historical model. Herein lies the seed of a much greater study of consumption, the psychology of modernity, and the logistical supply chains that allow nearly any substance to be commodified.

For the purposes of finishing this blog entry, I will leave off with a personal anecdote that branding, nowadays, is as much a badge of comprehensible qualities of food, drink, and atmosphere, as it is some greater conspiracy to adapt well-off nations to some sinister or corrosive ideological viewpoint. What used to be regional phenomena, even harkening back to wine-shops in the Roman Empire, now allows people to know what they will get for their money across thousands of miles and in places that, outside of the mediated franchise environment, may not even possess indoor plumbing or regular waste disposal. The title of this piece is tied to the fact that I was studying up on my Italian using a phone app version of Duolingo and realized that I wanted to make a journal entry about the erosion of barriers to communication and commerce that have enriched many lives, while bowdlerizing others.