Friday, February 03, 2006

The telegram is dead; long live the messenger

A graduate student in my program recently pointed me to the interesting news blurb that Western Union had ceased its telegram service effective January 27, 2006. He thought I might be interested in this fact of trivia because I myself have written a book on telegraph messenger boys, entitled, creatively enough, Telegraph messenger boys: Labor, technology, and geography, 1850-1950 (Routledge, 2002). In that book, I argued that, over its century-long history of active use, the meaning of the telegram itself was dialectically tied to the meaning of the messenger boy who carried it. Perhaps that's one reason the telegram died a lonely and anonymous death last week ... if you ordered a "telegram" in the late 1990s, your text would be entered through a web page, your account charged through a credit card, your telegram pounded out by laser-printer, and your envelope finally delivered to its recipient by an Airborne Express carrier. No human "messenger" was involved in any kind of brand-related sense -- the Airborne Express fellow who came to my door certainly didn't care that he was carrying a "telegram" and didn't ask me for a "reply" as they do in old movies, for example. But more than that, the company taking your money was not even really "Western Union," although it did own that brand name. The original Western Union Telegraph Company changed its name to New Valley Corporation in the early 1990s and spun off its only profitable division, its money-transfer service, to First Data Corporation about a decade ago. All this trivia is simply to say that our information commodities can become intimately bound up with our information labors. Maybe we don't really notice, though, until they're gone.

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