By: Tom Vanderbilt
Published Date: 2011 August 15
" MoMA's new exhibition "Talk to Me" purports to be about "the communication between people and things." If only it were that straightforward. By Tom Vanderbilt Chris Woebken and Kenichi Okada, Animal Superpowers: Ant, 2007. Photo: Chris Woebken In his book The Information, James Gleick relays an anecdote from the dawn of telegraphy. A man entered a telegraph office in Bangor, Maine, with a written message he wished to send. The operator pressed a key, then hung the paper on a hook. The patron was perturbed: The message was still there, he argued. How could it have been delivered? “A message,” Gleick writes, “had seemed to be a physical object.” While that was always an illusion, “now people needed consciously to divorce their conception of the message from the paper on which it is written.” Not only that, but this language — the Morse Telegraphic Alphabet — was no alphabet, notes Gleick. “It did not represent sounds by signs.” It was, rather, a “meta-alphabet, an alphabet once removed.” It was code. As Gleick describes, telegraphy, “the crossing point between electricity and language — also the interface between device and human — required new ingenuity.” There was the cadre of “operators” trained in this new form, but also an entire industry of compression; language (as later with text messaging) was turned into fragments and stock phrases (e.g., “wmietg” stood for “when may I expect the goods?”) sold via code-books, then into dots and dashes, only then to be reconstituted as words on paper. And a few decades later, it was mostly gone, all those code words and clacks rendered largely obsolete, supplanted by another form of information traveling down the wire: the human voice. "