Lest we forget, as we indignantly posture and pout at the injustice of 2020’s isolating imperative, that quarantined people in pandemics past had no phones, no social media, and no Zoom calls, here is a quick history detailing the distance we’ve come and how bloody lucky we are.
As you read this, lying on your sofa in your apartment, with Netflix’s Dead to Me on in the background (v. good) and your iPhone no farther away than arm’s reach, imagine what your life would be like if, to communicate with anyone at distance, you had to clamber outside, perhaps onto your rooftop or your terrace or your balcony, and start a fire from scratch with kindling and two twigs. Hard! And then, with the blanket you had to weave yourself from the wool you sheared off the sheep you reared, you had to cover and uncover the fire in well- timed momentum to send puffs of black smoke into the sky. Wait, it’s super windy outside, so actually, you have to wait until the storm passes, and then! Then you can do all that – imagine. You could also hunt and kill an animal, skin it, tan the animal’s hide, and fasten it tight over a hollow shell of some sort to make a drum. Then, you could beat that drum loudly to communicate with people miles away. Until your next door neighbors call the police. Party poopers.
PIGEONS – 3,000 BC
Considered vermin in many big cities, particularly en masse and dirty, with deformities like melted feet and missing beaks, the pigeon, or more specifically certain breeds of pigeon, can be quite beautiful. Beyond that, their incredible ability to find their way home over jaw- dropping distances has enabled their use as messengers – ‘pigeon post’, it’s called. Indeed, in times of war, the messages carried by pigeons have at times been so instrumental in victories that the pigeons themselves have been decorated for their service. Medals such as the Croix de Guerre, awarded to Cher Ami, and the Dickin Medal awarded to the pigeons G.I. Joe and Paddy, amongst others, have been bestowed; while the pigeons, who live a year or so, can now be seen stuffed in museums such as the Smithsonian. Homing pigeons are also expert smugglers, getting objects and narcotics across borders and into prisons. Between 2009 and 2015 in the Brazilian municipality of São Paulo, pigeons were reported to have carried cell phones, SIM cards, phone batteries, and USB cords into prisons. Coo.
You might remember seeing, in almost any old movie on almost any lazy Sunday afternoon, a well-dressed young man in a sharp pale gray uniform complete with saucy matching cap, pull up on a bicycle to a large manor house or stately home with a telegram for sir or madam. These telegram boys delivered telegraphed messages all over the UK and USA during the late 1800s, their use peaking in 1929. While the term ‘telegraph’ can cover such systems as towers transmitting signals to each other via reflected sunlight and such, telegrams were sent using electrically transmitted codes – Morse, for example. These codes were deciphered, typed and sent via these natty lads on bicycles. At the time, the messages were charged by the word, so were often hyper-succinct – something like the 21st century tweet. Stop.
Listen, I have a lot of patience for a lot of things in life – new music from Rihanna? That’s okay, we’ve got Fenty. No Time to Die? I get it: Corona yo, theaters are closed. The US presidential election? Okay, Trump’s trying my patience. But one thing that in hindsight, and even at the time, could bore the paint off a wall – rotary telephones. Dialing long-distance numbers, particularly with lots of 9s, felt like 30-second eternities. You’ve probably heard of Alexander Graham Bell – he was the first to be granted a patent for a telephone, but it was a man named Almon Brown Strowger – undertaker by day, inventor by night – whom children of the telephone can thank for the rotary. In his defense, he also revolutionized landline technology with his invention of automatic exchanges that put the 100,000 Bettys who worked at telephone switchboards out on the street. But eventually, through the 1980s, touch-tone phones superseded their interminable ancestor. And, in 1998, about ten years late, my parents bought one too.
For me, the facsimile, or fax machine, has got to be the most boring of all telecommunication devices. I’m not sure I can fully explain why, but I’ll try. Although this accompanying picture of pigtailed children is perhaps the least boring instance I’ve ever encountered (they’re so cute!), when I think of fax machines, office scenes of sad, gray cubicles packed with roll-up tobacco-smoking dogs-bodies loom like pure tedium. Cups of dish water with dehydrated milk are served from sorrowful coffee machines, and Stacey stands by the proximate fax machines, trying to unjam invoices sent from the company’s satellite office in Slough… kill me now. To me, they are each an idol of soul-quashing bureaucracy; gray plastic statues spewing piles of paperwork, but that are, praise be, increasingly a thing of the past.
Unquestionably the singularly most transformative invention ever in the history of humankind – the mighty cell phone. Wait, what’s that? The wheel? Okay, yes, that was important too. Excuse me? Fire? Yes, fire was a good one as well. Antibiotics, electricity, refrigeration, yes, yes I get it… but the cell phone! From those first unwieldy briefcase- sized radio phones, to brick-sized Motorolas (hello, Moto), to the Nokia Changing Faces that suffused society and gave us such icons as Snake and Snake II; then smartphones such as BlackBerrys and Sidekicks that now seem like they were mostly only good for adding work email to our out-of-office hours; and now, iPhones and Samsungs – fully-fledged pocket computers, windows to the world and the universe, unlocked via retina scans – the future is now. I am actually writing this in Notes on my iPhone 11. It’s 1:35am, I’m in bed, and I will WhatsApp these words to Art Director Vivek for laying out in the morning. That’s magic.
Just to bring it back to the fax for one quick tick – why do people still put their fax numbers in their email signatures?! It’s like an oxymoron; it’s a paradox. The two should not exist in the same space at the same time. It’s a miracle other realities don’t split off in violent scission from this one whenever emails with signatures such as this get sent. Maybe they do. Which brings me to my point – email has not only (thank god) eliminated the need for those diabolical contraptions (remember when you would call a fax number by mistake, the noise that would screech back at you like harpies in hell? *shudder*). But it has opened a whole new digital realm of opportunity. Yes, Karen in HR can send enough paperwork in one email to tickle her pink, but also, pictures, music, and movies can be sent across the world in joyful split- seconds. Yay, email.
If you check the Wikipedia page for ‘social media’, you will find a mind- numbing history replete with computer jargon tracing the trajectory from the telegraph of the 1840s through something called the PLATO system of the 1960s, ARPANET, Transmission Control Protocol, and eventually, to the World Wide Web. For our purposes, though, let’s start with MySpace! Remember MySpace? I had a big background image from The X-Men, and an audio player that launched into West Coast gangster rap as soon as the page loaded. My first friend, like everyone else on the platform, was Tom. The following year, Facebook launched, but it took some time to travel ‘cross the Atlantic, and then the deluge of sites such as Snapchat, WhatsApp, TikTok, and of course Instagram, the unassuming photo posting app that has spawned billion-dollar businesses, and is largely responsible for that ubiquitous new breed of human – the influencer. Social media has enabled us to keep in regular contact with more friends and family than anyone even knew they had, and now, while we are all busy social distancing, it is social media that has helped us maintain contact with our loved ones. Social media, we salute you.
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