The New Terra Nova

Photograph of Marconi and associates raising the receiving antenna by kite at St. John’s, Newfoundland in December, 1901. Appeared in the article “Marconi’s Achievement” in the February, 1902 issue of McClure’s Magazine.  Source:  Wikimedia Commons, PD-US

If you were traveling to what is today called Newfoundland in the late 15th or early 16th century, you might be an Italian explorer on an expedition from England, or an English, French, Portuguese or Spanish fisherman, en route to “Terra Nova,” the New Found Land.

And if it was 500 years earlier, it turns out, you might be a Viking explorer.

The Age of Discovery, when people from the Old World connected with the New must have been a fascinating time to live as new places and new peoples were added to the lexicon on regular basis.

These days, we don’t often give much thought to how transformational it was for people separated by thousands of miles for millenia to find one another.  It’s just so easy today to be connected.  Indeed, easy enough that with just a few online transactions, my wife and I and my parents planned out a journey across the Maritime provinces including Newfoundland.  The island was Terra Nova to us as we enjoyed our first visit this past week, but it was no longer new to the world, just another unique place and people.

I’m much more comfortable traveling by plane, car, and ferry to and from these scenic locations, lodging at hotels, dining at restaurants, than by a ship that has set sail for the horizon not knowing where it would land, or what it would find when it got there.  Indeed, I am amazed at what the generations before me endured and accomplished with such limited technologies compared to what we have today.  And I’ve wondered, with all that’s been discovered on earth so far — with geographies mapped and imaged online — is there anything left for people to explore?

The answer is a resounding yes, because while the Age of Discovery may have introduced people and places, it didn’t make them meaningfully closer.  They were still thousands of miles apart, months by sea.  More advanced technologies for travel would reduce the separation to weeks, days and eventually hours, but still a gap remained.  The real transformation would come with the Information Age, reducing the gap of connectivity — in the virtual sense — to the milliseconds of network transactions now possible between almost any two points in the world (or at least the ones with mobile coverage near the Trans-Canada Highway).

Newfoundland, indeed, hosted one of the signature experiments enabling the Information Age in December 1901, when Guglielmo Marconi set up a wireless telegraph system on Signal Hill outside St. John’s to receive a transatlantic signal from Ireland.

I’m not sure how well I would have fared as a fisherman or explorer in the 10th, 11th, 15th, or 16th centuries.  But I’m glad to have a career as an Information-Age “connector” in the 20th and 21st.  My excursion is not to find new people and places, but to find better ways of bringing them together, regardless of distance.  It’s a calling I’m delighted to be part of, my generation’s own “Terra Nova” of helping build a connected digital world.

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