Freedom of speech and of the press was paramount for the framers of the Constitution, or so it says in the first chapter of just about every book I’ve ever read for a journalism class. It was so important that they laid it out clear as crystal in the First Amendment. They even decided to subsidize postal fees for newspapers to encourage a burgeoning marketplace of ideas. The framers believed that everyone, including the village idiot, had a right to speak his or her mind.
Of course, the nature of communication has changed a lot since then. In the days of our Founding Fathers, news traveled at the speed of horse. The most efficient printing presses could run off as many as seven newspapers per hour. Today, we have cell phones, the Internet and instant messaging. But what if history had been different? What if the Founding Fathers had been able to send each other news and information with the push of a button?
Suppose for a moment that people of the late 18th century had cell phones. All the other technology of the era would be exactly the same, but somehow, magically, everyone from the lowliest farm boy to the wealthiest aristocrat had a top-of-the-line mobile device with Internet access. Imagine! Instead of waiting months for a letter from King George III to arrive on a frigate braving the foreboding Atlantic Ocean, members of the Continental Congress could have just opened up their address books, searched “George III” and called him up. And think of the implications for the public! News of the Boston Massacre would have spread across the colonies faster than syphilis. Instead of seeing a crude engraving of the incident weeks after it occurred, citizens could look at a photo taken by someone’s camera phone before the smoke had even cleared.
In the parlance of our times, news would have traveled “hella” faster. But would instant communication really have made things much better? Would Paul Revere still be an American legend if he was remembered as the guy who sent out the mass text that said “brits r comin?” Would Thomas Payne still have become the man who galvanized the revolution with his pamphlet “Common Sense,” or would he have been just another boring, irate blogger? Would anybody have gotten anything done at all?
Imagine the founding fathers sitting in Independence Hall, pretending to listen while covertly sending each other texts like “LOL @ Jefferson’s wig.” And just think of Benjamin Franklin. That guy would have never stopped twittering. “Ben Franklin is flying a kite.” “Ben Franklin just invented the bifocal…lulz.” “Ben Franklin is at a Turkish bath in Paris. Anyone care 2 join?” It’s unbearable to even think about.
Mail may have been slow, paper may have been fragile and printing presses may have been messy, but the founders of the United States seem to have gotten by just fine. Maybe we should be glad they didn’t have cell phones. Or, more accurately, maybe we should be glad we don’t have time machines.