Friday, December 14, 2007

Disturbing Inventions

Business, at its best, is inventive. Sometimes we don't like inventive. It annoys us. It disturbs our social order, at least until we figure out where and when to use it. Take spam, for instance.

From the pages of the best magazine in the world, The Economist, here is the fascinating story of the invention of spam, and its social consequences. Hint: blame the dentists.

ON A May evening in 1864, several British politicians were disturbed by a knock at the door and the delivery of a telegram—a most unusual occurrence at such a late hour. Had war broken out? Had the queen been taken ill? They ripped open the envelopes and were surprised to find a message relating not to some national calamity, but to dentistry. Messrs Gabriel, of 27 Harley Street, advised that their dental practice would be open from 10am to 5pm until October. Infuriated, some of the recipients of this unsolicited message wrote to the
Times. “I have never had any dealings with Messrs Gabriel,” thundered one of them, “and beg to know by what right do they disturb me by a telegram which is simply the medium of advertisement?” The Times helpfully reprinted the offending telegram, providing its senders with further free publicity.

This was, notes Matthew Sweet, a historian, the first example of what is known today as “spam”. It shows that new communications technologies have been prompting questions about etiquette ever since the advent of the telegraph in the 19th century. The pattern is always the same: a new technology emerges on the scene, and nobody can be quite sure how it will be employed, or the appropriate etiquette for its use. So users have to make up the rules as they go along.

Enjoy the entire article here. Learn calling etiquette in Sweden and whether or not to answer your phone on a train in Japan.

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