Vivek Haldar

The carrier-messenger wars

James Gleick’s The Information has an interesting anecdote from the early history of telegraphy. Telegraphs were charged by the number of characters. So messengers had an incentive to shorten their messages as much as possible while still being able to communicate. Carriers had the opposite incentive–to make messages as long as possible, to maximize their revenue.

Heavy-duty messengers, such as railways, devised their own intricate codes with short forms for messages they commonly needed to communicate. These codes were then spread throughout the organization, to be used by both telegraph senders and receivers. And telegraph operators tried their best to outlaw the use of such codes.

That was an early form of the same carrier-messenger war we are currently seeing with issues such as net-neutrality. Carriers want to shape the content on their pipes to suit their business needs. And messengers want the carriers to not care about their messages and never look at what is running through the pipes.