Remediation of the Telegram

Is it just me, or are text messages simply a remediation of the telegram?

Let’s think about this for a second. From my spring 2009 experience design class notes, Bolter and Grusin had a number of dimensions to describe remediacy:

  • Social: continuation and transformation of social practices as we move from one medium to another; social interactions surrounding its predecessors
  • Technical: continuity and transformation of technology
  • Material: conservation and transformation at the material level itself
  • Economic: continuity and transformation along with the economic practices surrounding the medium

Now, admittedly, of course text messages are part of the telegraphy tradition. Any message sent without a physical transportation device (aka “letter”) belongs to the telegraph. Why? Because of Greek roots, my friends.

Thank you Mrs Reed, for making me learn Greek and Latin roots in 4th grade, even though I hated it. It still comes in handy, unfortunately.

According to the Greek roots, tele = far, and graphein = write. Therefore, anything that is sent over a cable, radio waves, data transmission, etc, is part of the telegraphy tradition.

What I’m interested in, however, is the fact that we departed from telegrams as a culture in favor of telephones (far/distance + sound), and from there, fax machines, email, etc. I mean, maybe this is obvious and I don’t need to be writing about it. I still find it interesting, though, so I’m going to.

So there is the telegram, sent through a telegraph system, which assumes it is sent electronically through wires using electricity and spark gaps. And then we have the wireless technology of using continuous waves where the message is sent by on/off keying, and the encoding of ASCII into bits, etc.

Culturally, as I understand it, people used telegrams to update loved ones about births, deaths, travel plans, etc. That social norm was remediated to phone calls, which was remediated to emails (not faxes, I assume, which seemed to be a business-only remediation), and now to text messages.

I’m not really sure why I began thinking about this. I do know it kept me up late one night, trying to figure it out. I think it’s interesting how we never really let go of the past and its technologies. Instead, the past walks alongside us, providing inspiration (if we acknowledge and let it).