A review of MoMA’s new exhibition “Talk to Me” by Tom Vanderbilt from The Design Observer Group which investigated the changing nature of human interaction with the surrounding environment and how that environment is becoming more and more mediated by machines which we are unable to understand; Hence the environment is becoming more densely laden with symbols while its inhabitants are becoming less able to use their inbuilt apparatus (cognition via senses) to assess the environment – in actual fact the urban environment is thus not richer but in fact poorer in terms of sense data and is actually being “thinned down” more and more – much of the available urban data is control information and feedback in terms of what we are and are not allowed to do there as well as what and where where we should buy the machines which will put us back in touch with “ourselves” albeit the reconditioned selves others want us to be.
Chris Woebken and Kenichi Okada, Animal Superpowers: Ant, 2007. Photo: Chris Woebken
In his book The Information, James Gleick relays an anecdote from the dawn of telegraphy. A man entered a telegraph office in Bangor, Maine, with a written message he wished to send. The operator pressed a key, then hung the paper on a hook. The patron was perturbed: The message was still there, he argued. How could it have been delivered?
“A message,” Gleick writes, “had seemed to be a physical object.” While that was always an illusion, “now people needed consciously to divorce their conception of the message from the paper on which it is written.” Not only that, but this language — the Morse Telegraphic Alphabet — was no alphabet, notes Gleick. “It did not represent sounds by signs.” It was, rather, a “meta-alphabet, an alphabet once removed.” It was code.
As Gleick describes, telegraphy, “the crossing point between electricity and language — also the interface between device and human — required new ingenuity.” There was the cadre of “operators” trained in this new form, but also an entire industry of compression; language (as later with text messaging) was turned into fragments and stock phrases (e.g., “wmietg” stood for “when may I expect the goods?”) sold via code-books, then into dots and dashes, only then to be reconstituted as words on paper. And a few decades later, it was mostly gone, all those code words and clacks rendered largely obsolete, supplanted by another form of information traveling down the wire: the human voice.
This story came to me as I toured “Talk to Me,” which recently opened at the Museum of Modern Art. Curated by Paola Antonelli and Kate Carmody, and a kind of coda to Antonelli’s 2008 MoMA exhibition “Design and the Elastic Mind,” it aims to explore, through dizzying and occasionally overwhelming range, “the communication between people and things.” As the website notes, “whether openly and actively, or in subtle, subliminal ways, things talk to us, and designers help us develop and improvise the dialogue.”
Telegraphy is interesting in this context not simply because it anticipated some of the themes found in the show — managing the superabundance of information, the creation of a real-time, geographically distant consciousness (weather, news, prices, time itself fused in synchrony), the creation of networks (Gleick: “the earth was being covered, people said, with an iron net-work”), the “gestural interface” of the transmitter (we are now our own telegraph operators, clacking, swooping, squeezing our fingers across our devices), signal-to-noise ratio (garbled telegraphs, like garbled Google Voice transcripts, could send radically varying messages), not to mention questions of secrecy and privacy, or the way technological imperatives might affect the way we talk — long before the Twitter-fication of the language, we had the telegraphization.
Susan Woolf, Taxi Hand Sign Shapes, 2010
But even as we think about communicating with things, telegraphy also reminds us that communication itself is an object; “language,” writes Gleick, “is an instrument.” It does things, it changes things; it is built and it erodes away. A few exhibits here remind us of that: The Taxi Hand Signals, created in South Africa to assist the blind in communicating with drivers (and documented here by anthropologist Susan Woolf, who has further codified the system in a tactile book, where the signs are raised for touch, as well as accompanied by Braille labels); or the Homeless City Guide, hobo-like chalk markings (lo-fi “augmented reality,” of a sort) to “help others read the city” — an encircled “P,” for example, signifying “heavy police presence” — published each month in the magazine The Pavement.