Church bells were the internet of the 1500s

May 13, 2019, 07:52 PM

"Church bells were the internet of the 1500s, but churches didn't play them twenty-four hours a day. Back then they knew that as a species we're not cut out for endless noise from endless sources, yet in the past century I think we've maybe tricked ourselves into thinking we are. There's a message from those bells, or, rather, the absence of a message."

  • Douglas Coupland, Bit Rot

This piece looks at the role of social signalling and information dissemination that bells played in societies around the world for centuries, only for this role to be increasingly sidelined and subsumed by technology, secularism and - above all - the internet. 

Bells would have marked out the day for countless millions of people, telling them when to pray, when the working day was over, bringing them domestic news from their local area and summoning them all together. Today, our communities take the majority of our social signalling from smartphones and internet-enabled devices.

For this piece, the sound of bells in Hanoi, Vietnam, are summoned by the sounds of the old-school internet - first, the slowed-down and effected sounds of the Windows 95 startup, then the crackle and hiss of the dialup modem. 

For as long as we remain connected to the internet in this piece, we can tune into the church bells and remember the role they used to play - but when the connection goes down, we lose track of them once again. 

There’s also an interesting subtext when we consider the specific location of the sound in a society that is steeped in tradition and still dominated by subsistence living in its rural areas, but by contract is also being described as the Silicon Valley of Asia. How far will technological progress push aside the old ways of life in Vietnam? 

Bells in Hanoi reimagined by Cities and Memory.