Many New Media scholars find it productive to compare technological innovations and their impact on society across time as a way to ground their current research. In Techniques of the Observer, Jonathan Crary traces the modern construction of the observer and visuality to the camera obscura, an early device used for redirecting light to project an image of its surroundings onto a screen or paper. The connection between texting and the telegraph seems more straightforward. After all, I did just sign up for another two years of service from American Telephone & Telegraph.
“Evans: Could you come superintend under my direction important excavation Knossos. Personal not school affair terms four months sixty pounds and all expenses paid to begin at once.
Mackenzie: Agreed coming next boat.”
Telegrams between Arthur Evans and Duncan Mackenzie regarding work at the excavation at Knossos
The 2008 Pew Internet report on Writing, Technology and Teens came amidst concerns over the “death of writing” and the “colour and poetry” of writing being lost. The Pew study also states that students do not consider texting writing, and indeed it appears to be closer to a vernacular form of speech. In their 2005 An SMS History, Taylor and Vincent describe this speech as “new linguistic repertoires that allow for the intimacy afforded in face-to-face encounters to be reproduced between physically remote interlocutors,” in other words, a unique texting argot.
Alternately, Caroline Habluetzel looks at texting as occupying a unique position between speech and writing, allowing it to “overcome the absence of the receiver and create what in the context of classic letter writing has been called epistolary presence, that is, a sense of presence between the two interlocutors that is more intense than geographical distance would suggest.”
This changing of our sense of place and space through time is something that I’ve always been interested in as an archaeologist. The properties of texting and telegrams are similar enough—limited transmission length, relatively expensive, conveyance of instantaneous information that is expected to be read and acted upon immediately—that it creates an intriguing parallel in history. Tom Standage calls the telegraph The Victorian Internet in his book with the same title.
It appears that the telegraph has not destroyed writing, nor will texting. If anything, I appreciate the shortness of the telegram agreement quoted above between Arthur Evans and Duncan Mackenzie—how wonderful if more jobs had similar hiring practices!
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