Science Book a Day Interviews Tom Standage


Special thanks to Tom Standage for answering 5 questions about his recently featured book – Writing on the Wall: Social Media, The First 2000 Years

Tom Standage is digital editor at The Economist and editor-in-chief of its website, He has been editor of the Technology Quarterly supplement, which covers emerging technology, since 2003. Tom is also the author of six history books, including “Writing on the Wall: Social Media—The First 2,000 Years”, the New York Times bestseller “A History of the World in Six Glasses” (2005), and “The Victorian Internet” (1998), a history of the telegraph. He holds a degree in engineering and computer science from Oxford University, and is the least musical member of a musical family. He is married and lives in London with his wife and children. – From Tom’s Blog

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#1 – What was the impetus for writing this book?

I’ve touched on media history in my previous work, for example in my 1998 book “The Victorian Internet”, which likens the telegraph of the 19th century to the modern Internet. And in 2010 I was put in charge of The Economist’s website and digital editions. I’ve always found history a useful way to think about the future, so I began to read more deeply about the history of news. I soon realised that the mass-media models that are now being disrupted by the internet are actually quite young; they only date back to the 19th century. Before that the media environment was much more decentralised and relied on social distribution and recommendation, for example in coffeehouses. So the mass media disrupted that earlier social-media environment, and the recent rise of internet-based social-media is a reversion to the way things used to be. That was the germ of the book. The idea is to show that social media has much deeper roots than most people realise — it actually goes back to the Roman era. And that means we can learn lessons about social media today by looking at the past.

#2 – How did you go about writing this book? How long did it take and how much research did you have to do?

I started writing this book in 2010 and finished it in early 2013, so it took me nearly three years. The gaps between my books have got bigger since I published my first one; I’m now down to a book every four years, instead of one every other year. My earlier books were shorter and focused on specific time periods in the 18th and 19th centuries, but my three most recent books have all been world histories, requiring much more research, reading and synthesis.

#3 – One of the central ideas in your book is that in terms of media, nothing is really new. That’s a big idea. How do most people respond to that notion?

The most common reaction has actually been that it’s obvious, once it’s pointed out. Before steam presses and radio and television, of course there was no mass media; of course information mainly travelled along social networks. How else could it have travelled over long distances and reached a wide audience? People decided what they thought was important and passed it on, sometimes adding their own analysis or commentary. That’s social media. Of course, internet-based social media is new in some ways: it’s global, instant and searachable, for example. But the underlying mechanisms are very similar to those of historical social media, and the reactions it inspires are remarkably similar. So the analogy is close enough to be informative.

#4 – Another idea in the book is that media is intimately entwined with the technology of the era. Are you able to/do you want to make any predictions about the future of our media and related technologies?

It’s pretty clear that media is now digital, and that computers are getting smaller and closer to our bodies. So I think this whole augmented-reality thing, delivered via glasses, then smart lenses and eventually implants, is going to happen. It’s a very widespread assumption in sci-fi, and I think it’s correct. It will take a while, though, and technologies like Google Glass are a very crude step in that direction. We’ll need accurate indoor positioning to do it properly, for a start.

#5 – Do you have any new books/projects you can tell us about?

No. Or perhaps that should be “not yet”. I am in that happy period of a year or so after I publish a book when I do not feel the need to write another one. But the itch always comes back. In the meantime, my band is making its second album, and I have plenty of work to be getting on with at The Economist.

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