DialToneEver since I started using the telephone (back when we only had to dial 7 numbers for most calls!), I knew that the person on the other end was as near as a few milliseconds away. Of course, I never thought of “milliseconds” back then – our voices were carried across the wires at the speed of light (as we were told), so it was, basically, “instantaneous.”

When the astronauts communicated from the moon during the Apollo Space Program, we learned that it took about a second for their voices to reach us. (Radio waves travel at the speed of light.) About the same time, science taught that it took 8 minutes 20 seconds for the light from the sun to reach us on the Earth. Right now, there are two Voyager spacecrafts in deep space, out beyond our solar system, and it takes (as of today) 13 hours 12 minutes and 2 seconds of light-travel time from Earth for our signals to reach it, and vice versa for the signals it sends back – more than a full day for two-way communication. (http://voyager.jpl.nasa.gov)

Nowadays, when I speak to people on cell phones, I can always tell that our communication is far from instantaneous – there is a noticable delay, (I’ve clocked it as being from 1/2 second to sometimes more than a full second depending upon the cell system, or if it’s Voice Over IP, or some other new-fangled method) and for a guy who grew up with “instantaneous” it can be a noticeable annoyance.

On a more important note, where are our communications actually going? To the moon and back? Around the world a few times? Full disclosure: I’m well aware that the electrons of my communication are being handed off from cell phone to tower, through a patchwork of technical middle-agents, maybe up to a satellite and back down again to another technical patchwork and finally from tower to cell phone. There’s not a prayer for “instantaneous” any more, and we “technical purists” will never quite be able to converse on the phone “like we used to” anymore.

But what about our email? I’ve sent emails to people who were waiting on the other end for them, and they can sometimes take 10 seconds, 20 seconds, even several minutes to arrive. Where are these emails going, and why? Are they passing through the government’s (ours… theirs…?) electronic vacuum cleaner for further scrutiny?

Albert Einstein* once commented on the speed of light, “186,000 miles per second – it’s not just a good idea, it’s the law!”

I guess modern technology drives in the slow lane – the speed of sound is 768 miles per hour. “Faster than the sound of light” looks to be as close as we can get to instantaneous in the 21st century.

(* Einstein might not have actually said this.)