Patrice Riemens on Thu, 8 May 1997 15:04:04 +0200 (MET DST)

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(ZKP4 piece by Patrice)

The history of human communication is a relentless epos of succession and
supercession of older media by newer ones, and its outcome is checkered
and unpredictable.  The oldest medium, the handwritten message, is still
with us after a few thousands of years.  It evolved from a rarified tool
in the hands of the moneyed and powerful till just 150 years ago, when it
became a mass communication tool with the advent of the industrialised
letter-post and the standardified postage rate & stamps.  Only very
recently has its existence been challenged by the newest electronic media,
and its diseapearence, though technically feasible, might not be
politically and socially acceptable so quickly.

Other methods of dispatching messages had their time of glory before
vanishing out of sight almost unnoticed.  Some where very local and
plainly bizare in our eyes.  Who knows about the pneumatic network that
criss-crossed late 19th/early 20th century Paris, whereby whereby users
would trust handwritten messages in closed cilinders at one post office,
which would re-emerge at another, and be hand delvered from there to the
addressee?  "Le petit bleu", because of the regulation blue forms used,
quickly became an standard prop in the sentimental novel.  The system was
closed some 20 years ago, as the air-tight conduits had become leaky
beyond repair, and lovers prefered to conduct their business over the
telephone instead of using the written word anyway.  Another carrier of
the written word was, in quite astonishing fact still is, the telex, which
is a chat system for all practical purposes, albeit considerably more
expensive and cumbersome.  Yet nobody wails the telex, which anyway never
made it into the general public as a mean of communication.

I do wail the telegraph, the oldest and most elevated of the electric
media, which became victim of its own success, and whose intricate
technicality made it obsolete beyond reprieve on several counts at once.
It is surely needful to remember that the telegraph system is the true and
only direct ancestor of the Internet, or at least such is the argument
advanced by SF author Neal Stephenson in his noted and remarkable
contribution in WIRED 4.12.  Stephenson argues that the telegraph too was
wholly based on the binary code (the 'dots' and 'lines') and that it was a
text carrier par excellence.  I tend to agree, but so surely did a lot of
crowned heads, generals and other mighty lords, culminating with Mustafa
Kemal, the latter Ataturk, who conducted his political revolution and
military reconquest of Anatolia (1922/23) by turning the Turkish telegraph
system into what would be called nowadays an intranet.  The reach of the
telegraph was by the end of the first half of the 19th century already
truly amazing. It extended as far as railways 60 years later, and sometime
beyond.  My Andreas Hand Atlas from 1896 shows telegraph connections to
very outlandish places at the edge of the (Wester) known world.  Not a few
of these places, according to Jean Claude Rufin "new white patches"
theory, might now in fact be without ground lines access.  (Neal
Stephenson argument is remarkable on another count, by the way -quite
apart from the un-sound-bite length of his contribution.  Did you ever
wonder at the harshness of the social relations described in "Snowcrash",
and even more so, in the "Diamond Age"?  These books are replete with
eulogic descriptions of haughty lords floating above the grimness of the
commoners existence in a warp of wealth and privilege.  The answer is that
Stephenson simply loves it!  As far as he is concerned, inequality can
never go far and social relations cannot never be harsh enough towards the
unworthy and the losers.who pair the crime of demerit to the sin of lower
origin - but I am straddling here)

As it became the system of fast communication par excellence, somewhere
halfway the previous century the telegraph fired the imagination, if not
of the masses, then at least of the discerning public, in a way that was
only reduplicated in our own epoch, in the current Internet hype.  And it
is still far from clear whether the Internet will have such a lasting
impact on culture as the telegraph did.  For more than a century, it came
to symbolize the miracle of almost instantaneous communication, conducted
in its specific condensed style.  It even gave its name to a particular
style of writing, besides being taken up as the flagmast of a good many
newspaper all over the world.  The telegraph was the hallmark of swift,
snappy and highly relevant communication, as befited the rich and
powerfull, whose favourite method of messaging it remained till far in
this century.  Whitness that charming anecdote about the (politically very
incorrect) anarchistic agitator dandy poet d'Anunzio, who, in an early
instance of spamming, send his butler every morning to the post office
with 6 - or more - telegramms, all equally phrased "YOU ARE THE ONLY ONE
STOP GABRIELLE".  But do you nowadays remember the meaning of "STOP"?  And
when was the last time you send, or received a telegram, if ever? (this
question does obviously not apply to non-west Europeans!).  May be it is
better so, since, at least to lesser mortals people, telegrams  used to be
be associated with urgent, id est bad news: death and other catastrophes.

The main drawback of the telegraph was the degree of mediation it
necessitated.  In a time of cheap and disciplined labour, it was never a
one-to-one instrument like the telephone (the latter telephone that is,
which expanded exponentially as soon as it did away with operators).  It
necessitated armies of dedicated personnel busy with taping the code,
translatting the dots and lignes, gluing ribbons of texts on forms and
bycicling all over town to deliver the impressive-looking forms.  Some
functions were automated over time, but not nearly enough to save it, even
when by its last lease of existence, the transmission itself was relayed
by telex or even fax-lines, and the pretense only maintained by the
letterheads of the print-out, and, of course the outrageous charges it
commanded.  Just as with that other victim of progress, the express
letter, of which the number dwindled almost as fast as its charges
sky-rocketed.  (Our age has thus also lost the thrill of being handed over
these massively franked and stamped envelloppes, with crimson red
etiquettes all over the place, sometimes with strange texts on them like
KAT'EPEIGON, KUAALIVISTO, or more simply: "EKSZPREZS" (orso)).  Less fast,
far more expensive, not as reliable, and no longer handled and received
with awe in these stressed and uncaring times, the telegraph is surviving,
shorn of all its dedicated infrastructure, as a "Restposten" (left-over)
of the telecom service.  An unglorious and undeserved death for what was
after all the earliest, one of the most characteristic product and the
prime communication carrier of the industrial revolution.  Being a method,
rather than a service or a tangible system, it can hardly be conserved
either, possibly with the exception of the rather rarified environment of
a reality-park.  Or should we introduce the convention of formatting and
processing e-mails like old-fashionned telegrams?  This author's readers
may well endorse all too wholeheartedly such an initiative.

Together with partners in Goa (India), the Amsterdam Digital City (DDS)
will shortly open a Virtual Telegraph Office for the experimental and
artistic enjoyment, and learning, of its users.  For a short period of
time, they will be able to send telegramms all over the world, for
ludicruously low charges, and with a remarkably high degree of
halphazardness.  Take it as a swan-song, or a transgressive salute of the
new medium towards the ancestor, and keep posted (
....URL to be announced in due time)

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