After Hours

History of the telegraph offers a look at the future of IT

IT managers who don't want to be left behind should look back for a glimpse of the future. In this week's edition of Artner's Law, TechRepublic columnist Bob Artner draws parallels between the history of the telegraph and the future of IT.

Here at TechRepublic, we talk about practical solutions to the challenges you face every day. As an IT manager, you have a list of projects that demand your immediate attention. It is likely that you face aggressive deadlines without as many resources as you’d prefer.

That is why TechRepublic doesn’t spend a lot of time publishing “What the PC will look like 10 years from now” kinds of articles. It’s not that we don’t care about potential PC designs; we just prefer to focus on more immediate concerns.

In this column, however, I am going to advocate that technical managers spend some time thinking about how their jobs will change over the next few years. New technology will force some of those changes, of course, but so will the general business climate. While you have to devote most of your time to solving today’s problems, the astute manager will find a way to prepare for tomorrow’s problems.

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From the "things never change" department
I started thinking about this while reading a book about the rise and fall of the telegraph. Titled The Victorian Internet, Tom Standage’s book describes how a motley group of eccentrics and geniuses created the technologies that allowed the telegraph to literally tie the world together, reducing the time it took to get a message from Chicago to New York City from days to seconds.

Several stages in the telegraph’s development directly mirror the rise of the PC:
  1. 1.      The visionary push: Like all truly revolutionary technologies, the telegraph had more than its share of detractors and early failures. It never would have succeeded as thoroughly as it did without people like Samuel Morse who were absolutely obsessed with its possibilities.
  2. 2.      The disdain of established technologies: One of the reasons continental Europe was slow to adopt the telegraph was that it already had a means of communicating across distance. Ironically, it was called an optical telegraph and consisted of large, wooden towers built on hillsides within a line of sight. An operator inside the tower could pass a message to the next tower by raising and lowering large wooden beams to make symbols that stood for various letters of the alphabet. The optical telegraph was slow, expensive to build and operate, and only worked in the daytime during good weather. However, several countries, having spent lavishly to build their optical telegraphs, were loath to give them up, even for an obviously superior technology.
  3. 3.      The rise of meritocracy: When the telegraph finally did take off, it created a huge demand for telegraph operators. To be successful, these operators needed no special schooling or experience. They simply had to be good at sending and receiving messages. A good telegraph operator could get a job anywhere. In fact, a surprising number of telegraph men were, in fact, women—a rarity among the professions at that time.
  4. 4.      Systemic improvements to the core technology: After the telegraph was firmly established, successive inventors made improvements to the basic technology. For example, Thomas Edison and others improved bandwidth on the system by inventing first duplex and then quadruplex technology, which allowed four messages to be sent simultaneously over a single wire. Others developed the stock ticker, which allowed share prices to be sent from the exchanges to stock brokerage houses across the country (or the world). The Wheatstone Automatic telegraph also improved bandwidth by allowing an operator to punch a message into a card that could be read by a machine and sent at a very high speed to be decoded by a similar machine at the opposite end.
  5. 5.      A brief golden age: By the early 1870s, the telegraph reigned supreme. Telegraph operators were paid well and felt themselves part of an honored profession.
  6. 6.      Rapid decline: Ironically, the inventors of the telephone were originally trying to improve bandwidth on existing telegraph lines when they discovered the new technology. Despite the disdain of many in the telegraph industry, the telephone quickly started to supplant it. Telegraph operators, sad to say, quickly declined in status and employability.

What does this mean for us?
While Standage wrote his book to show the parallels between the rise of the telegraph and the rise of the Internet, I think it’s more important as a cautionary tale for IT professionals.

Consider the telegraph operator. For a period of time, the telegraph offered employment to anyone who could master the technology, regardless of background. There was even a hierarchy of status, as operators moved from small, rural locations (with less traffic) to large, central offices (which had huge traffic). It was a good way to make a living for a lot of people.

And then it started an inexorable decline as it was supplanted by the telephone.

What does this mean for today’s IT manager? More than anything, it means that technology doesn’t stand still and that we have to be comfortable dealing with change.

Not a problem, you might be saying. After all, you’ve gone from XT clones with 512 KB of RAM to networks of large servers. True, but they are still PCs, only much more powerful.

However, I’m not necessarily talking about the changes in technology itself so much as I am about how these changes could affect the IT organization of the future.

Take desktop support as an example. As you know, the support professional has to be prepared to handle a variety of PC problems, from user error to various hardware and software failures. As the PC becomes ever more of a commodity product, it isn’t hard to envision an organization that doesn’t even attempt to diagnose or fix desktop problems. Rather like getting a bad handset for a telephone system, the company will simply give the end user a new machine and mail the old one off for repair. (Of course, this implies that all user files are stored on servers, but you get the point.) Some organizations, in fact, already do this.

Take the job of network administrator, for another example. Over the past five years, we’ve seen the migration of expertise in PC networking from Novell NetWare to Microsoft’s Windows NT or Windows 2000. Looking ahead, many people speculate that the big battle will be between Microsoft and open system platforms like Linux.

However, what if the entire job of network administration changes? Right now, our networks are so complex that it’s hard to imagine not requiring the vast numbers of admins employed today. However, will that always be the case? As technology improves, might the need for network administrators decline?

I’m not trying to scare anyone. After all, the rise of the telephone created more jobs in the long run than it eliminated, but they were different kinds of jobs. Not everyone was flexible enough to make the transition.

When it comes to your own career, don’t assume that the battles you fight today are the ones you’ll be fighting tomorrow. Try to look ahead and identify the coming trends and see how they will affect your job. Getting ahead of the wave was good advice for telegraph operators, and it’s also good advice for IT managers.

When have you been proactive at problem solving?
Have you been proud of a proactive approach that you’ve taken on an issue? Perhaps you saw the benefits and the downsides to the explosion in mobile devices, and you formulated policies before the situation got out of hand. Post your comments.


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