“What if the internet existed a century ago?”
It is a simple question with an entertaining answer. A lively and humorous novel of alternate history, “1916: The Blog” tells the story of my imaginary great-grandfather Sebastian, a low-level newspaper typist who in 1916 comes into possession of a futuristic connectivity machine. The typewriter-like device sends written telegraph-style messages to other users through telephone lines, allowing the other users of this secret, experimental technology to read and comment on Sebastian’s musings.
In telling the story, the book also weaves in the everyday happenings of Sebastian’s family and coworkers, including an attractive female typist that unwittingly lures him into the world of women’s suffrage. The plot traces the character’s repeated attempts to woo both this coworker and a woman he only knows online – attempts that end in riotous disaster every time – and culminates in a final choice he has to make between both women. And he has to do this all while trying to escape law enforcement, as the government is trying to shut the new technology down.
The new device fascinates and perplexes the 27-year old Sebastian, as it coaxes him into a very different world than he knows at his mundane job. For instance, when he signs up for the “inter-blog” site known to device users as “Tinder,” he earnestly believes he has found a new way to purchase firewood; much to his horror, he quickly realizes it is something very different. When offered the chance to be a spokesman for a new pill that helps increase his “stamina,” he happily accepts, thinking this new miracle cure will allow him to wash and fold laundry without running out of steam. Naturally, this misunderstanding ends in spectacular public embarrassment.
“1916: The Blog” is an observant satire of the modern internet culture, as Sebastian runs into early-20th Century scams, snake oil salesmen, medical quacks, dating sites, trolls, and conspiracy theorists. The story mixes extensively researched true events from the year 1916 with a fictional narrative documenting the experiences of a low-level newspaper worker in the American Midwest. Throughout the year, Sebastian finds himself in amusing predicaments borne of the Progressive Era, which was at its height in 1916. Almost all the stories in the book actually happened; in that sense, it is a work of true fiction.
Of course, many of the events of a century ago have a specific resonance even today; in the 1916 presidential race, Republicans were fending off a takeover of their party by a fringe element. Americans were deluged by “fake news” run by partisan newspapers. Foreign governments attempted to influence the outcome of the presidential and congressional elections in order to alter the balance of World War I.
The book is written in periodic installments, as if Sebastian were blogging as real-world events unfolded. During the year, Sebastian offers his thoughts on the 1916 presidential race, the United States’ impending entry into World War I, America’s manhunt to find Mexican outlaw Pancho Villa, and the soon-to-be imposition of Prohibition – all without the benefit of a long-term historical perspective. In this sense, he is offering hyperbolic, real-time opinions without complete information, a characteristic that often defines modern internet discussion.
Further, the nation was struggling with an influx of immigrants who spoke little English and chose not to assimilate – only then, it was Italians, Germans, and Poles that drew the nation’s ire. With war against Germany looming, Germans were especially singled out for discrimination – a trend that continues with ethnicities in America currently seen as enemy combatants. Today’s gender conflicts also have deep roots in the suffragist movement that was at its peak in the early 20th century, and modern debates over drug legalization still echo the prohibitionist arguments made prior to the Volstead Act of 1919.
By detailing the modern rise of the internet in a past time frame, the book is able to demonstrate changes to our contemporary culture that we may not even fully realize. For instance, the 1916 device detailed in the book allows for anonymous users, leading to a quick decay in decorum and wasted promise for the technology. Users eventually become dependent on the machine, and while real people are now more connected, they feel more alone, as they begin to take every moment someone is not messaging them to be a conscious decision to ignore them. Users begin public shaming efforts, take information wildly out of context, and begin conspiracies that have been debunked for a century. Even though 1916: The Blog is a book of humor, it demonstrates the potential of interconnectedness that we are squandering.
But most of all, “1916: The Blog” is a funny look at how we have all both changed and stayed the same over the past century. Briskly written with airy language, it offers sharp insights into what promise the internet still holds, and serves as a cautionary tale as to how the gift of interconnectedness is bound to go horribly wrong when real human beings get involved. “1916: The Blog” shows that human nature will always be human nature, even a century later.
The manuscript is complete, and the search for a publisher is on.
About the Author:
Christian Schneider is a political columnist at USA Today, America’s largest newspaper by circulation. He is also a weekly columnist for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, a newspaper with a daily circulation of 218,000 and Sunday circulation of 385,000. His op-eds have been featured in The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, New York Post, City Journal magazine and National Review magazine. He is a frequent guest on political television and radio shows, most recently appearing on NPR’s “On Point” news show. He has also blogged since 2005, and he holds a Master’s degree in political science from Marquette University.