Text Patterns - by Alan Jacobs

Monday, December 6, 2010


Umberto Eco always makes me think:
I once had occasion to observe that technology now advances crabwise, i.e. backwards. A century after the wireless telegraph revolutionised communications, the Internet has re-established a telegraph that runs on (telephone) wires. (Analog) video cassettes enabled film buffs to peruse a movie frame by frame, by fast-forwarding and rewinding to lay bare all the secrets of the editing process, but (digital) CDs now only allow us quantum leaps from one chapter to another. High-speed trains take us from Rome to Milan in three hours, but flying there, if you include transfers to and from the airports, takes three and a half hours. So it wouldn’t be extraordinary if politics and communications technologies were to revert to the horse-drawn carriage.


  • Interesting, but I have no trouble scrubbing frame-by-frame through a movie in any number of video programs, or even on my DVD player. And to call the Internet a "telegraph" really seems obtuse; even if there is some formal underlying similarity (binary code, etc.), the Internet is built on packets of data in a way that the telegraph never was, not to mention higher-order emergent properties too numerous to count. As for flying, the Rome-to-Milan route is a species of carefully chosen cherry-picking . . . heck, commercial air travel from my house to the grocery store three blocks away would take even longer compared to walking! But flying from Philadelphia to Portland, Oregon, as I did last week, allows me to spend two full days there and still only be away for three days total. Try that on high-speed rail.

    So, every example has fairly obvious limits, not to say flaws . . . but I suppose you're right, Eco did make me think!

  • Andy, I always see Eco as provocateur, never to be taken too literally. Absolutely, you can move frame-by-frame through a DVD, but it's interesting to reflect on how our movie-viewing habits may have changed since we could also move chapter-by-chapter — or maybe I should say "chapter," since the original movies have no chapters and they are introduced for the home audience.

    Ditto with the telegraph example: once upon a time wireless telegraphy was the most amazing of inventions, but we are now more dependent on wires (that is, fiber-optic cables) than ever before.

    And so on. Eco's individual examples don't hold up to strict scrutiny, but what he's doing here, I think, is calling attention to the way our actual technological experiences are somewhat at odds with simple narratives of technological progress (especially those that involve the necessary abandonment of the past).

  • Huh. That's one of McLuhan's laws of media: "What does the medium retrieve that had been obsolesced earlier?"

  • RE: tape v dvd

    There's some amazing stuff in The Conversations about different ways of accessing footage effecting how films are edited.

    Re: High speed rail

    See also: Break of bulk point

  • Isn't twitter and text messaging more of a modern return to the telegraph (telegram).... you are limited in the amount you can write and as a result the message is short and (sometimes) choppy.

  • Also another Next Big Thing: "cloud computing," which is a longer-distance re-implementation of the ancient mainframe & terminals design of pre-personal computers.

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