Direct Message

The Cost of Instant Information Delivery

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Frank E. Webner, Pony Express rider circa 1861. Public domain photo.

The photo of a Pony Express rider above looks like a boy. That’s because he was a boy.

Mythology states that the Old West was run by manly men. It turns out, the communication pipeline in the early 1860s relied on teenagers. The Pony Express was the original DM.

I recently fell down the rabbit hole of the Pony Express, reading about this short-lived but impactful cultural artifact that only lasted 18 months. There are obvious differences but also parallels to today.

What struck me was the enormous effort it took to get a letter from coast to coast in a mere 10 days. Riders could weigh no more than 125 pounds so the horses could gallop swiftly through mountains, deserts, blizzards and attacks.

Most of the riders were just kids — teenage boys hired for their size and stature. Mark Twain called these riders “a little bit of a man” in his book Roughing It.

In emergencies, riders covered more than 20 hours at up to 25 miles per hour. Can you imagine the fear alternating with boredom riding hour after hour across some godforsaken Nevada expanse at night with no lights looking for the next outpost — which may be attacked by the time you arrived?

The most storied ride in the Express history came from Robert “Pony Bob” Haslam, who rode 190 miles without resting to transport Lincoln’s inaugural address. Oh, and he got hit by an arrow during the ride and lost three teeth — but didn’t stop.

Jack Keetley, who was hired at the age of 19, once rode 340 miles in 31 hours without stopping to rest or eat. He was finally taken off his saddle while asleep.

A 14-year-old, Billy Tate, was killed in a shoot-out near a valley in Nevada.

There was no 911 or roadside assistance or Uber to call in the event of an emergency. But this is what they did just to communicate.

I thought about the herculean efforts of the Pony Express while opinions are instantly sent across the globe in reaction to a report that hasn’t even been released yet.

We’re accelerated our pace and access to information just a bit since 1860. It’s made life easier, but also has some unintended consequences. We’re conditioned to react with speed — even if we don’t have the complete picture.

In Amusing Ourselves to Death, Neil Postman wrote that the speed of the telegram — and eventually television — turned information into a mere commodity:

The telegraph may have made the country into “one neighborhood,” but it was a peculiar one, populated by strangers who knew nothing but the most superficial facts about each other.

“Knowing” the facts took on a new meaning, for it did not imply that one understood implications, background, or connections.

At best you are left with an amusing bit of trivia, good for trading in cocktail party chatter or solving a crossword puzzle, but nothing more.

“What am I to do with all these disconnected facts?” And in one form or another, the, answer is the same: Why not use them for diversion? for entertainment? to amuse yourself, in a game?

Communication has become faster, more efficient and more abundant than ever before.

Information becomes a game. We mobilize, split up sides and spout our talking points for every occasion.

And that’s not even counting Amazon.

I was talking about this topic with William Caraher, who says Amazon got him with free “get it now” shipping for a dog toy. This press of a button sets in motion the Pony Express riders of today — Amazon fulfillment, warehouses and delivery. Setting aside the human cost of this speed, it also creates new habits and expectations that we need everything now.

“They want you to order dog chew toys in two hours, forming new shopping habits and disregarding Prime fees as a matter of life and death,” Caraher said. “They are playing the long-game and winning it fiercely.”

We’re not used to waiting.

The Pony Express increased the speed of delivery considerably. It was soon made obsolete by faster trains, cars, airplanes, tweets and Amazon Prime.

During the Pony Express years, we relied on teenagers. Today, we’re all acting like them.

We can’t go back to the days of the Pony Express, nor would we want to. But maybe there’s a happy medium, and we can slow our impulses down just a bit.

Written by

Educator. Podcast addict. Wrote a book about creativity:

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