This essay takes the development of the telegraph as a starting point for approaching the most confusing elements of our current electric communications revolution, in particular its new visual aspect: the development of television, its evolution to higher definition, its integral role in the internet phenomenon.

(Reuters) LONDON Feb. 1--Monday [Morse code] fell victim to the relentless march of technology.  Morse is being replaced by a satellite-based "Mayday'' system on all ships over 300 tons which have to carry satellite and radio equipment for sending and receiving distress alerts.

Thoughts on the Demise of the Telegraph

The electric revolution we are now in the mind-boggling midst of began  in 1844, when the telegraph was perfected as a means of instant long-distance communication by Samuel Morse.  Its simple signal, a click over a wire, expanded over time to become the telephone voice, the teletype letter, the radio song, and the television's visual image.  The technology of the internet--which combines more sophisticated visual and auditory media with geometrically progressing computational power and speed--is so far the furthest flourishing of that first seed: the electrically transmitted dot and dash.

The wired world is not new, and America has been its frontier and testing ground for a very long time.  As a nation we have been defined--psychicly, economically--by our commitment to this evolutionary trajectory.  As we struggle to predict where the technology is heading and what it will mean to us, it is useful to look back to the communications revolution in its embryonic stage.

The telegraph was not just the first electric communications medium: it was in fact the first practical application of electricity in any form, long preceding the lightbulb.  Electricity had been well-known since Benjamin Franklin's experiments, but before Morse it was considered a mysterious novelty on par with Mesmerism.  The practical application of electricity turned out to be miraculous: the instantaneous long-distance transmission of thought.  In the realm of human communication, it is an invention comparable to the development of speech and written language.

Remarkably, Morse and others at the time had some idea what they were onto.  His 1837 Patent Office filing describes his invention as "a method of convey[ing] intelligence between two or more places."  A local newspaper reported, "Time and distance are annihilated, and the most distant points of the country are by its means brought into the nearest neighborhood."  Elsewhere the telegraph was called "the instantaneous highway of thought."  This at the time of the Alamo: Martin Van Buren was president.

Despite the continued pace of invention, we've made little progress in our ways of thinking about the electric communications phenomenon.  The currency, 160 years later, of the phrase "information superhighway" is a good sign of our present technological bafflement: still trying to understand a new medium in terms of the one it is superseding--just as automobiles were first termed "horseless carriages."  What this tells us is that the coming reality of the Internet will have as much to do with routes and maps as cars have to do with horseshoes and oats.

Just like the Net today, the telegraph's future was not clear to everyone:  Congressmen called it an "absurdity," and Morse would wait seven years before they'd fund his plan for a wire between Washington and Baltimore.  And while it would seem that no medium is more utilitarian than the telegraph, in its early days the Baltimore-Washington wire was used for chess games and lotteries.  The telegraph was not an entertainment medium for long, but its brief reign highlights the confusing role of Entertainment--as distinct from interpersonal communication--in the evolution of electric media.

Electric entertainment has a lot to do with the wonder of the new medium per se, the joy of a novel experience: e.g., there is nothing new about chess, but it is amazing and entertaining when its players are miles apart.  No doubt as the telegraph flourished there were those who questioned, say, the expansion of lines in 1846 by pointing to the silliness and expense of increasing the range of simultaneous chess-playing to New York and Philadelphia.  Of course, the telegraph would quickly revolutionize rail transport, journalism and the stock market, among other things--but the future is never apparent in a new medium's first uses.

New media find their natural, functional niche in the human landscape, or they disappear.  The telegraph was not destined for the role of amusement--it wasn't a toy, it was a tool.  Communication comes naturally to the telegraph, as well as to its auditory successor on the wires, the telephone.  Meanwhile, the television, which in its current low-definition incarnation is the very definition of entertainment, has gone nowhere as a medium of communication.  This is apparent in the great unfulfilled promise and perennial failure of the videophone.  The medium which is so good at transmitting Seinfeld to 90 million adds almost nothing to a phone call between two people.  The videophone--TV as communication--will have to wait for higher definition.

(It is interesting to note that visual and auditory media seem to have opposite effects:  Visual entertainment is low-def: the TV; auditory entertainment is high-def: the CD and stereo.  Low-def audio is perfect for communication: despite its two-cent speaker, the telephone could not be more functional.  It follows that HDTV will be a communication medium--and it won't be cheap.)

Of the current electric media, television is the most entertaining, and (quite literally) the least defined.  We have the sense that people would watch TV regardless of its content: it is still a transfixing novelty, still in the games-playing stage.   When we talk about "television," we don't usually mean the medium--that piece of visual electronic equipment TVs and computers and ATMs have in common.  We are almost always talking about the content of television (which for the most part is no longer even "instantaneous"): TV equals "E.R.," or "Oprah."  But that is like discussing the telegraph in terms of chess games, or the telephone in terms of your mother: the content is not the same as the form, and it is the form of a new medium which changes the world and changes our lives.

The electric visual--television--is our newest and most primative form: we are at the very earliest stage of adding our culture’s dominant sense, the visual, to the electric sensorium.

Low-def TV is perfect for entertainment, and this quality will in no way be improved by high-definition television.  Getting rid of our old TVs for HDTV will be like throwing out a telephone for a stereo, or vice versa.  Because HDTV will be a new medium with new characteristics and uses.

The internet revolution is largely about the changing form of TV: the continuing evolution of electric visual media beyond entertainment.  The television that sits atop your computer is evolving towards a clearer definition as a medium for communicating something:  something that will be visually concrete and visually affecting.  The finer its resolution, the more useful TV will become as a medium of interpersonal communication.

With today’s internet, we're back in the 1800s:  crafting email, sent, received and stored in boxes; sounds sputtering like Bell’s first call to Watson; images scrolling with the coarseness of lithography. We are now in the process of rapidly re-evolving through the history of media inventions, recaptulating our eye and ear innovations within the new context of a personally operated inter-network.

If the internet is the telegraph of our day, then surely the telephone is coming:  Immediately following the technical revolution of the telegraph, came the velvet revolution of the telephone.  No more codes and telegraph operators: the phone came into the home and worked intuitively.  You only had to know how to talk.  In its pure utility, the magic disappeared; it soon seemed normal.  Western Union became AT&T.

The present challenge is to imagine the telephone that will replace our telegraph: What form will offer the phone’s ease and transparency in the audio-visual (and likely tactile) realm of the internet?

Will television become "interactive"?  Imagine asking this question of the telegraph or telephone.  The first electric mediums were nothing but interactivity.  Somehow, entertainment TV has made us forget the essence of electric communication--that it is instant and organic.  We should not doubt that the visual electric will acquire this character when it is high-definition, that the new form could be the opposite of TV as we know it, like the phone as McLuhan described it, “A participant form that demands a partner, with all the intensity of electric polarity.”

These organic effects may not be achieved at the current HDTV standard of 1080 lines of resolution, but they will come around.   The progress of all electric media is towards transparency, and there is no reason why this won't develop in visual media.  Eventually they will become transparent, like a mirror that we can visually conceive into; and the experience (especially in combination with auditory and tactile media in computer forms like Virtual Reality) will be concrete, direct--as though unmediated: an authentic human presence.

That magical future was present in the telegraph and telephone, as it is today in many forms we take for granted or are numb to.  We are Science Fiction, a race of wizards walking the the earth babbling into cell phones, searching 100 million sites a second on the Net, convening by the billion to experience the Super Bowl simultaneously, "live."

It all began with the telegraph.  Morse code transmitted meaning by  uniting the simplest electric form, clicks over a wire, with the vast abstraction of our alphabetic language.  Now the bandwidth has expanded, and the formula is reversed.  Complex technology, capable of replicating ratios of our senses with higher definition, is on the verge of making electric communication an experience that is not abstract: virtually real, conceptually concrete.  An organic experience that will transmit us whole into new perceptual places.  Beyond the telegraph dot, the telephone line, and the plane of television's flat screen, new spheres of communication are opening up.