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.

Text Patterns

December 6, 2010


  1. 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!

  2. 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).

  3. 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

  4. 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.

  5. 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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