Monday, December 2, 2013

The Victorian Internet

As I have noted in the past, the Victorian age was one in which there was a tremendous unleashing of knowledge to the common public.

This came with the advent of cheap pulp paper and steel engravings for illustration -- a move that forever changed the world of dogs, among other things.  I am not sure much new occurred with dogs due to the telegraph, however. Pulp paper, however, was another matter.

Oddly enough, the history and future of pedigree dogs is inexorably tied to two great information revolutions.

The first occurred during the Victorian era, when a combination of cheap pulp-wood paper, movable metal type, and block plate illustrations helped disseminate old and new scientific theories to the common man.

Out of this first Golden Age of Information came a Victorian fascination with nature, the rise of farm stock shows, and Charles Darwin's theory of evolution.

It is hard to overstate how important cheap paper and movable type were to the spread of scientific inquiry and the explosion of controlled breeding experiments occurring at this time.

Suffice it to say that from before recorded history, until the publication of British Quadrupeds in 1837, fewer than 20 breeds of dogs were recognized in Great Britain.

Of course, that was about to change!

By 1837, Charles Darwin had returned from his voyage around the world, and in 1859 The Origin of Species was published.

That same year, the first dog show was held on Newcastle-on-Tyne.

Within 15 years, the Kennel Club had been formed, and just 20 years after that, it had closed its registry to cross-breeding.

The Gospel of Unnatural Selection

Where Darwin had preached a Gospel of natural selection by the hand of God, the Kennel Club preached a Gospel of unnatural selection at the hand of man.

Surely what God did in leisure, man could improve on in haste?

From the beginning, of course, there were skeptics. Within the first two decades of the Kennel Club's creation, some began to note that inbreeding was already a problem. Others decried the "grim joke" that the Bulldog had become due to the embrace of non-functional standards.

Working dog men noted that breeds brought into the Kennel Club seemed to quickly lose their utilitarian abilities. Luminaries of the dog world such as the Reverend John Russell, famous for his working terriers and hounds, refused to register their own dogs, saying they preferred the "wild eglantine" found in God's fields to the "hot house rose" being paraded in the show ring.

Did this criticism have much effect?

In truth, not much.

The breeding of exotic-looking dogs in a closed registry system had started as an act of faith, but had quickly developed into a kind of fevered obsession as immune to logic as any religion.

It helped, of course, that the Kennel Club was organized around nearly powerless individuals and weak breed clubs that were beholden to a small but powerful oligarchy at the top.

This oligarchy was itself the product of a lifelong catechism into the values of conformation dog shows.

An organization which abhorred cross-breeding, and which valued "conformation," was not a likely prospect for rapid change. Throughout the Twentieth Century, the Kennel Club held tight to its antiquated Victorian theories, as trapped in their own dogma as any insect embedded in Miocene amber.

This was the Kennel Club as it was for more than 100 years. Though critics were sometimes heard mewing on the margins, they were easily dismissed and in truth there were not too many of them.

After all, who wanted to speak too loudly knowing they might jeopardize their chance of winning in the ring, or forfeit any hope of advancement in the Kennel Club's hierarchy?

And if you were not winning? Well, these people did not last too long with the Kennel Club, did they?!

A few cracks in the firmament popped up from time to time, of course -- a critical essay or magazine article or two might note a decline in the health and working abilities of one or more pedigree breeds.

These episodic outbursts of protest had little lasting effect. Like honking in the street during a church service, they did little more than irritate the congregation inside.

The Second Information Age

In the late 1990s, however, something came along that changed everything: the Internet.

It is hard to overstate the impact of the Internet. Suffice it to say that in our own lifetimes, we will see the end of books, newspapers and magazines as we have known them. The era of film cameras, video tape and recorded disks is already past. Many young people today have yet to lick their first stamp, such is the ubiquitous nature of email, voice mail and text messaging in this modern world.

What does this mean for the world of dogs?

Quite a lot.

The Internet, you see, has democratized information and mass communication.

Today, anyone with a computer can read Darwin's notes about canine evolution, research the origins of the Kennel Club, and locate health surveys and veterinary insurance records which illuminate the current and rising crisis in canine health around the world.

When hard-hitting documentaries like the BBC's Pedigree Dogs Exposed are produced, they are no longer seen for a night and forgotten with the morning sun.

Now, thanks to YouTube, anyone with a computer can watch at leisure, and forward the link to scores or even thousands of others via email, list-serv, personal blog, or organizational web site.

Those who want to know more can easily find reams of information, much of it eye-opening. Consider this single line from the August 2009 issue of The Veterinary Journal for example:

"[E]very one of the 50 most popular pedigree breeds of dog in the U.K. were found to have at least one aspect of their physical conformation predisposing it to a heritable defect."

Every one.

Suddenly the dog-buying public was paying attention. A Kennel Club dog was a risky proposition. Canine insurance records and rates underscored the proposition: a cross-bred dog was a better gamble than a pure-bred one.

As more information began to percolate out to the public, those with sick dogs no longer saw their expensive veterinary burdens as a bad stroke of personal luck. Even the most cursory search on the Internet revealed the bitter truth; huge numbers of pedigree dogs were diseased, defective and deformed.

The Kennel Club, it seemed, had forgotten to do right by the dogs.

The Choice Ahead

Now, almost too late, the Kennel Club seems to have woken up to the precarious nature of its position.

In the age of the Internet, creating a new national registry of dogs is no longer a daunting task. If the Kennel Club will not stand for dogs that are healthier and more able than those found down at the local pound, then someone else surely will.

While it took the Kennel Club 130 years and hundreds of millions of pounds to build their current registry, it might take a young Internet-savvy entrepreneur only a few weeks and perhaps 100,000 pounds to build the backbone of a parallel Internet-based registration system that pairs modern email outreach with a dynamic web site, a powerful online date base, and a system of real veterinary-based health checks coupled to product-based discounts on pet food, pet insurance, and veterinary care.

Unlike the Kennel Club, this new registry would have no historical baggage to tote, and would not have to pay homage to petulant prigs and screaming matrons hell-bent on holding on to defective standards and misguided Victorian-era theories.

One thing is for certain: at this point in the game, the Kennel Club cannot afford to dally and play footsie with incrementalism.

The 21st Century will no longer wait for the 19th Century to catch up.

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