The last telegram

Telegraphy is as old as the hills, or not quite, but the use of hills to convey fire or other optical signals from one station to another, quickly over considerable distances, goes back to ancient Egypt & Mesopotamia.

Reading Sir Aurel Stein’s wonderful archaeological memoirs as a boy, I recall my thrill at his description of the signalling system, which conveyed messages from the T’ang Dynasty’s wild west all the way back to the capital at Chang-an, along such as the towers of the Great Wall. Barbarian savages would attack & overrun a remote position, but hooo! Their assumption was, dead men tell no tales. So imagine their surprise when soon after they are faced with a disciplined Chinese army, assembled seemingly out of nowhere.

Civilization can usually win, if it wants to. To this day, I am charmed by the idea that our security forces use algorithms to spot suspicious behaviour on the Internet, specifically Islamist cells plotting terror hits. Even drones appeal to me, as a means to promptly reach & annihilate these devils in human flesh. Gung ho!

So I was being a little facetious on a television programme yesterday when I lamented the invention of the electro-magnetic telegraph, thanks to which, from about the middle of the century before last, we began to get remarkable things, such as same-day breaking news:

“This seriously disturbed the peace of the world. Perhaps the invention should have been suppressed, along with all the other magical & dangerous forms of action-at-a-distance. Or just put on hold until the human race became mature enough to handle it.”

This world’s very last telegraph offices are to be closed in India next month — that blessed country where the last manual typewriters were being manufactured only two years ago. Really, I felt a little sad about these losses. One becomes attached to old technology. I admit this is a sentimental, merely conservative tendency, & not the more defensible reactionary position just staked. A day will come when a tear is shed for the Internet & email; when they are rendered quaint by even more frightening technology, from which there will be no re-tweet.

As recently as 1997, despatched as a hack to cover the funeral of Mother Teresa at Calcutta, I was able to fall back on old-fashioned telex when fax & laptop failed. But after one awkward round of that, I fell farther back on the even older method of bribery, to get my hand-written reports to the front of the queue for a Government of India fax machine. (Returning home, I met the young editor who had never received hand-written copy before, & was still in a state of trauma from the experience of deciphering it.)

I do not accept bribes myself, but as an Old Asia Hand never felt much compunction about giving them. They are among the more innocent bureaucratic transactions, usually accepted like tips in a restaurant. But as the old epigram goes,

One cannot hope to bribe or twist
The honest English journalist;
But seeing what the man will do
Unbribed, there is no reason to.

The notion that I must be getting old is advanced when I recall telegrams sent & received, decades ago: the messenger arriving as the embodiment of Fate. They were expensive little things, not used except by the very rich for casual communications; one selected “night letter” whenever possible to get the lower rate. A telegram meant good news, or more likely very bad. It arrived folded & sealed in a little envelope, so that the man delivering it could not know if he was announcing a joyous birth, or a death in the family. He had one of the tougher underpaid jobs.

It is really that envelope for which I pine. Diplomatic cables were secret & encoded, but for the rank & file of citizens, the envelope provided the seal. The breach of an envelope by anyone other than the addressee was — still is to some extent — considered a very low act, almost on a level with a breach of the Confessional. It could be done by authority, on reasonable suspicion of a crime, presented to obtain a court order. It was unthinkable without that authority, or rather, could be justified only as a crime of passion.

Yet someone had to receive the telegram in a public place, & perhaps transcribe it. The message could be electronically intercepted. In exchange for speed & efficiency, the world’s correspondence was already being opened to view by the inventions of Samuel Morse, & others — who did not at first realize the “privacy” implication. Morse himself (1791–1872) claimed to be motivated by his grief on having been notified too late of the fatal illness of his wife, who died alone. He’d been away in Washington, on a portrait painting commission.

An enthusiast for the institution of slavery, & advocate for the persecution of Catholics, Morse was celebrated in his day as a great exponent of “the American way.” His scene paintings extol the austerity of the Puritan pilgrims to America’s shores; his portraits are a gallery of Patriot heroes. The modern inventors, in England & Europe as much as this side of the pond, were for the most part cut from such cloth. The Industrial Revolution was stamped by the enterprise of Calvinists, Quakers, Huguenots. It was most certainly a Protestant triumph (see Max Weber); pyrrhic in the sense that it has since contributed mightily to the extinction of Protestantism.

Or rather, as I’ve come to think, to the transformation through technology & enterprise of that “Protestant ethic” into a new & different kind of religion, which I have been ever so subtly critiquing in these electronic pages (if gentle reader can bear present participles of that sort, & paragraph breaks in mid-sentence).

The technology itself is a matter of indifference, as a correspondent recently insisted. Anyone can use it, to a variety of purposes. Catholics bought into telegraphy as fast as they once bought into the divine right of kings, or into the Crusades on eye-for-eye principles. The purveyor of worldly advantage will always find purchasers, in all camps, & as McLuhan taught, the medium becomes the message. I do not think, in the end, “privacy” is the most important issue, though I will grant it some importance.

Atomic bombs are morally indifferent, & I have no objection to them, per se. “Only a problem for people with bad nerves,” as Stalin put it. It is when we drop one on Hiroshima that it acquires apparent significance in that moral line. But “Little Boy” itself had no will, no bad intention. It was never rigged to do anything but explode. Similarly, the equipage of electro-magnetic telegraphy, & each of its successor technologies, may be cleared of every allegation of ill will. It is what we do with these things that counts, & therein I part ways with the Luddites, sympathetic as I might be with their overall approach.

I’d prefer a more Catholic form of resistance. Unless men can be brought to maturity — made to consider the consequences of each act — the technology will rule. And it will rule with the same moral indifference.