Through the Wires

“Telegraph plays,” which made a plot device out of a new device, show that stories told about technology shape the stories told with them

Time makes stories, and time is malleable. One way that we understand time is through the distance between the cause and the effects of actions, both our own and others. This is how stories make time: Cause, effect, and consequences create a path that can accelerate us forward, regardless of our sense of the outcome. Stories pace us.

What it feels like to be in time is often altered by the information that moves the stories around us. Some information arrives as a catalyst, hurling us forward into the unknown; other information notifies us of the inevitable, for which waiting can take forever. This is a reminder that time is not constant but experiential and conceptual; it varies with our desire to know.

With the telegraph onstage, audiences knew there would eventually be news of some sort; it was no longer a surprise, as with the earlier device of having a messenger arrive suddenly in the last act

Last year, a special issue of Theater devoted to “digital feelings” — that is, the new ways of feeling brought about by digital technologies — included an essay by historian Christopher Grobe on how the advent of the telegraph changed the way time unfolded on the late 19th century stage, affecting how problems could be created and resolved, and shifting how narrative arcs could develop. In the essay, he examines a set of what he labels “telegraph plays” — largely forgotten works that prominently featured the then new technology. In many telegraph plays, the telegraph features not only as a plot device but as set design: a telegraph machine center stage, ticking away throughout scenes or whole shows, poised like a gun to go off with plot-shifting news. Sometimes actual telegraph operators were onstage along with the machines.

Both novel and realistic, the telegraph returned a literal edge to the metaphor of deus ex machina —“god from the machine.” With the telegraph onstage, audiences knew there would eventually be news of some sort; it was no longer a surprise, as with the earlier plot device of having a messenger arrive suddenly in the last act. Instead the question became, How fast would the news arrive? Would it arrive in time?

The telegraph changed drama because it changed how information moved, how it accumulated, and how it was valued. With the invention of the telegraph, information started to come quickly, initiating the process of networking the world through communication and laying the groundwork for our current experience of hyper-connectivity. The real-time intrusion of news from distant parts was as novel then as social media’s current state of permanent alert is for us now.

Telegraph plays are by no means the only example of 19th and 20th century stories that grapple with the social effects of technology. But the history of the telegraph haunts our contemporary relationships to communication technologies in particular ways. Not only did telegraph lines establish the necessary material infrastructure for the subsequent telephone and cable and internet lines to follow, as writer and artist Ingrid Burrington and theorist Tung-Hui Hu have pointed out, but they also marked a conceptual path of least resistance as well. Just as the new lines could follow the old, a new logic for making sense of events — that is, a new way of telling stories and understanding the paths they may take, the possibilities and conventions of cause and effect — could also flow along upgraded but still familiar lines. It becomes easier to reaffirm old possibilities, harder to imagine new disruptive futures.

Stories lay down tracks, and those tracks are overlaid with new wires. Telegraph plays remind me that tracks get laid down in predictable places. It is this echo that fascinates me: When something is the same and also different, I wonder what is hiding in the space between the two things.

Technology has a recursive relationship to narrative. Our use of technology itself constitutes a story of sorts, one about what other stories we would like to regard as possible. With the telegraph, that story may have seemed new and open-ended, but each new technology — not just the telegraph but the railroad, the telephone, the automobile, the computer, and so on — has reshaped narrative approaches within storytelling constraints already established. Structures like the deus ex machina repeat, but who and what brings information, and thus has the power to shape truth, changes — divine intervention gives way to royal pardon; royalty makes way for technology.

The telegraph changed drama because it changed how information moved: The real-time intrusion of news from distant parts was as novel then as social media’s current state of permanent alert is for us now

New technology always seems like the beginning of a story, but it is also immediately evokes a foreseen ending, an ever after in which stories could not have been told in any other way.

Stories — including the stories that new technology seems to enable — reveal our contemporary preoccupations as well as our attempts to define future possibilities. In “The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction,” Ursula K. Le Guin proposes thinking about stories not in terms of heroes but in terms of what stories can carry — what we can put into and bring forward with them: “A book holds words. Words hold things. They bear meanings. A novel is a medicine bundle, holding things in a particular, powerful relation to one another and to us.”

As carriers, stories are means for information circulation; they too are technologies for making meaning, for carrying forward information in specific forms and placing it in relation to other things. They carry ideas about how relationships operate in the world, much as all communication technologies do. For Le Guin, the hero is only one thing a story can carry, but the story of a hero carries many other things: a focus, for instance, on individual action and triumph as opposed to collective effort and success. When representation in popular culture is discussed, this is what is at stake: The stories we tell reaffirm what is possible, what is probable. Stories can reproduce stereotypes of race, gender, sexuality and ability; stories can also interrupt those stereotypes.

To think about stories is to think about how they organize things — how they have been arranged intentionally and could be rearranged. As social media intervene in how we structure our relationships, these technologies appear in our narratives, reflecting how we understand where they fit into our systems of belief. Grobe writes that “we shape these media to ourselves as surely as we mold a handle to our grip, but meanwhile they reshape us: teaching our bodies new stances, engraining new habits in our minds.” This is a way to make sense, to make memory, to make a path forward. Reshaping is a way to bring the past forward into the future.

The stories we tell about technology depend on where we locate ourselves within them within time. When the story ends, you know it could not be any other way. When a story begins, it is possible that this time it will be different.

Truth is, of course, unstable. The terms on which knowledge is made are always contentious, always wrapped up in the power of privilege.

In his essay, Grobe relates anecdotes about secret communications between telegraph operators onstage during telegraph plays — “knights of the keys” who in their boredom began to type out real messages — and those audience members who understood Morse code. This strikes me as an apt metaphor for how stories can speak publicly about private things through a shared code that not everyone understands. It situates the idea behind the term “dog-whistle politics” within performance, and points not to difference encoded with biology but structured by media use.

Our use of technology itself constitutes a story of sorts, one about what other stories we would like to regard as possible

As the politics polarize in the United States and Europe, this kind of practice seems to be increasing. What I might take to be incomprehensible nonsense from figures like Nigel Farage or Donald Trump may as well be in code, but they are onstage, in plain view. That is not to say that the bigotry in their speech is not apparent. But what I am interested in is the way in which they are able to speak across me to those that understand them. It is tempting to ridicule these speakers and their audiences, to dismiss their response to noise pitched to a frequency that others cannot hear but which they can’t help but respond to. However, it may be more useful to regard their use of technology as a learned mastery. The stories they tell have a powerful ability to cultivate a feeling of recognition in the midst of public fracture, and exploit it to experience and consolidate power. The encoded meanings reach those that recognize themselves in the language: the knights of the key.

We no longer think in terms of telegraphs; now, network metaphors abound. Perspectives shift, things happen at once and one after another. It is easy to overlook who knows enough to understand the story and who knows enough to tell it. Oppression is perpetuated in the stories we tell, through representation and erasure. And it is true of the means we use to tell stories; these also erase certain stories and enable others.

The fact that what is comprehensible to some is not intelligible to others clarifies who is included and excluded from the processes of imagining worlds. It reminds us that what is easy for some — taking visible action without dire consequence — is hard if not impossible for others. Obfuscation is not necessarily always intentional, but the unintentional is not necessarily harmless.

To disrupt this, we need to know what the telegraph operators are saying to each other. But more than this, it is vital to be aware that there are stories in the form: that culture and its meanings do not occur only at a surface level within content but also in how the information is transmitted. All ideological positions tangle their perspective in with how they tell a story and where. Imagining new futures requires paying attention to who makes the stories that we tell and how. It requires asking when we ourselves fence in communities with shared knowledge, and wondering who is excluded and included from the ability to laugh along.

This is how culture is constructed: through our ability to confidently address only the particular people we want to hear. This ideological keying operates the other way too, in the infinite micro-aggressions of culture as it reproduces tropes that signal to groups they are not welcome in the story. It normalizes a world where only certain people can do certain things, where only certain lives are acknowledged to exist and to be capable of taking action.

Those whose power is reinforced by these stories hear nothing out of the ordinary, even as they tell the stories of their own power again and again. Those without power understand implicitly that culture does not care enough to tell them stories.

I am not against secret languages. But I am wary of how the public jokes that let the knights of the keys know one another leave others behind in the audience, following the wrong story.

Jane Frances Dunlop is an artist and writer whose work addresses emotion and performances of relation on the internet. She lives and works in London, UK.