‘A unit of data for transmission; a group of bits of fixed maximum size and well-defined format that is switched and transmitted as a composite whole through a packet-switching network, any message exceeding the maximum size being partitioned and carried as several packets’ (OED).
The idea of the packet testifies to the priority of form over content in communication. Telecommunication, in particular, is best approached from the point of view of the system, rather than from that of the individual user.
The term itself is remarkable for the sheer consistency of its usage. Messages have always been transmitted over great distances as groups of bits. Since at least the seventeenth-century, ‘packet-boats’ have crossed and re-crossed the seven seas with the primary if not sole purpose of conveying documents of various kinds bundled up into packets.
Byron had a lot of fun improvising rhymes within the constraints of, and with the urgency required by, such acts of bundling up. This is the first stanza of ‘Lines to Mr Hodgson Written on Board the Lisbon Packet’.
Huzza! Hodgson, we are going,
Our embargo’s off at last;
Favourable breezes blowing
Bend the canvass o’er the mast.
From aloft the signal’s streaming,
Hark! the farewell gun is fir’d;
Women screeching, tars blaspheming,
Tell us that our time’s expir’d.
Here’s a rascal
Come to task all,
Prying from the custom-house;
Not a corner for a mouse
‘Scapes unsearch’d amid the racket,
Ere we sail on board the Packet.
The unbundling and re-bundling of trunks and cases is felt as an unbundling and re-bundling of the person whose possessions they contain. The packet-boat’s reluctance to distinguish between people and containers (the people being accommodated courtesy of the containers, rather than the other way round) soon gave rise to gloomier speculations. ‘The railroad is in all its relations a matter of earnest business,’ John Ruskin complained in The Seven Lamps of Architecture (1854), ‘to be got through as soon as possible. It transmutes a man from a traveller into a living parcel.’ Ruskin’s parcel contains a single item. In earlier use, however, the term was much closer to packet, with the emphasis on its containment or bundling up of a variety of items. Ruskin, at any rate, soon began to think of the traveller as a group of bits in a rather different – but, I would argue, compatible – sense. Travelling by rail, he announced in the third volume of Modern Painters, in 1856, does not amount to anything you could really call travel at all: ‘it is merely “being sent” to a place, and very little different from becoming a parcel; the next step to it would of course be telegraphic transport.’
More recently still, it’s possible to discern a degree of anxiety attaching to the process of packaging involved in telecommunication. There are, as William J. Mitchell puts it, bad bites as well as good ones.
‘The co-ordinates propagated by my wireless devices invite electronic tracking and surveillance. The technology that so precisely guides my automobile to a specified urban location can also guide a missile or a smart bomb. And increasingly, the containers that now speed through the links we have so carefully constructed – from packets on the Internet to the cabins of jetliners – are not only subject to physical hijacking but also to electronic hacking, militarization, re-engineering, re-programming, and being re-combined, re-directed, and turned against us’ (Me++: The Cyborg Self and the Networked City, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2003, p. 5).
We’re perhaps back in the vicinity of an enduring colloquialism. Since the First World War, to cop a packet has meant to get in the way of a bullet (or a missile guided by the technologies which also guide automobiles). As someone says in Dorothy Sayers’s Murder Must Advertise (1933): ‘I’m really fearfully sorry you copped that packet that was meant for me.’