Date sent: Fri, 09 May 1997 22:26:42
From: Patrice Riemens

In Praise of The Telegraph System

Patrice Riemens

The history of human communication is a relentless succession and supercession of older media by newer ones, and its outcome is checkered and unpredictable. The oldest medium, the hand-written message, is still with us after a few thousands of years. It evolved from a rarefied 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 standardised postage rate & stamps. Only very recently has its existence been challenged by the newest electronic media, and its disappearance, 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 were very local and plainly bizarre in our eyes. Who knows about the pneumatic network that criss-crossed late 19th/early 20th century Paris, whereby users would trust hand-written messages in closed cylinders at one post office, which would re-emerge at another, and be hand delivered from there to the addressee? "Le petit bleu", because of the regulation blue forms used, quickly became a 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 preferred to conduct their business over the telephone instead of using the written word anyway. Another carrier of the written word was, and quite astonishingly in 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 (Western) known world. Not a few of these places, according to Jean Claude Rufin’s "new white patches" theory, might now in fact be without ground lines access. (Neal Stephenson’s 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 can 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)

As it became the system of fast communication par excellence, somewhere halfway along 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 symbolise 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 newspapers all over the world. The telegraph was the hallmark of swift, snappy and highly relevant communication, as befitted the rich and powerful, whose favourite method of messaging it remained till far in this century. Witness that charming anecdote about the (politically very incorrect) anarchistic agitator dandy poet d’Anunzio, who, in an early instance of spamming, sent his butler every morning to the post office with 6 - or more - telegrams, 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 sent, or received a telegram, if ever? (this question does obviously not apply to non-west Europeans!). Maybe it is better so, since, at least to lesser mortals, 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, translating the dots and lignes, gluing ribbons of texts on forms and bicycling 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 victims 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 envelopes, 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" of the telecom service. An unglorious and undeserved death for what was after all the earliest, one of the most characteristic products 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 rarefied environment of a reality-park. Or should we introduce the convention of formatting and processing e-mails like old-fashioned 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 telegrams all over the world, for ludicruously low charges, and with a remarkably high degree of haphazardness. Take it as a swan-song, or a transgressive salute of the new medium towards the ancestor, and keep posted.