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Nothing New Under the Sun

December 15, 2009

I joke that I am a Luddite, but this is only half-true. I own an iPod but don’t really know how to use it. I have a computer and can do some stuff with it, but the machine is barely a generation removed from taking up a whole room. My cellphone is for phone calls (not photographs, music, accessing the Internet, or choosing ring tones), and I ignore it when I’m not at home. I compose text messages from complete words and punctuated sentences, stubbornly refusing to abbreviate. But, I litter those messages with a slightly foolish symbol representing the skull and crossbones tattooed above my elbow:

: ) X

And, I poke fun at Twitter, which is a service I don’t understand. Well, actually, I get it; I know, literally, what it’s for and why people are its enthusiastic participants. But, I don’t get why such fleeting scraps of information are such valuable social and cultural currency. I don’t understand this revolution in split-second correspondence, or how a message that remains visible only a short time reaches its intended audience. This all seems quick, contrived, cultivated and purposeless.

Beyond my critique, I am certain that if Twitter is your thing then it’s probably quite interesting, important, gratifying and curiosity-spiking. Fair enough. I get that, too.

But, for all the things Twitter is, there is one thing it is not: Twitter is nothing new. Last week, P. sent me this photograph of the Notificator, and the behind-the-times me was charmed. And, hitched to one another, I can put the meaning of Twitter into context with the help of the Notificator, a clunky old machine that would have been at home on the set of The Muppet Show (remember the Face Rearranger?) or snuggled up to one of those penny-squashers where you insert a coin, turn the crank, and pull out the flattened coin embossed with an image of Niagara  Falls.

The Notificator reminds me of so many things: 

Passing notes in class (in grade five, girlfriends and I rigged up a little pulley system tied beneath our chairs, in order to transport messages row to row, desk to desk, without being spotted).

Loitering out back of school in the smoking section (itself now obsolete) and checking the lewd little messages kids wrote in stolen chalk or black Sharpie on the brick wall: meet me at recess; Jeff is a total fag; Cathy you slut, don’t forget you owe me a butt; 7 pm, the field by the middle school, me and you and Scott.

I imagine gaggles of teens slouching around the Notificator, jostling the gentleman in his bowler hat, waiting for messages, teasing and shoving other kids who come to read personal memos (from their mom, their boyfriend, their girlfriend, their older sister).

I imagine businessmen earnestly scribbling changes of location for meetings, ladies checking husbands’ train times, tipplers attempting to leave coherent messages to colleagues after one too many over noon at the pub.

I imagine the voyeur reading messages intended for others, the flaneur idly composing bits for others to discover, the show-off posting as many messages as possible as often as possible, the helpful announcement directed to all readers.

I imagine the Notificator steaming from backpage-style personals, descriptions of people who passed on the corner, one now seeking the other to set right that missed chance.

Perhaps you’d visit the Notificator with one item of business in mind, show up seeking one thing but come away with another, like browsing Craigslist for a sofa and ending up with a ceramic lobster, a vintage bicycle, and a date on Saturday with someone called Steve.

Would you dress for your trip to the Notificator stand, like we now curate Facebook personae? Wear your best gloves and hat, and carry a nice briefcase, the way we post awesome party pictures, cute high school pictures, and recent photos cropped carefully to hide that middle-aged spread?

Would you compose a message hastily, scolding someone or revealing a careful secret, then wring your hands in dismay while you wait for the two-hour limit to elapse and your ill-considered message to roll out of sight?

Most of all, I imagine the Notificator archives, like the postal services Dead Letter Office, a mass of old messages stacked to the rafters, telling all, about everything, scrolls of paper slowly yellowing like teeth.

7 Comments leave one →
  1. December 16, 2009 4:42 pm

    I love this essay.

    When I think of twitter, etc, it reminds me of a story my father tells, over and over, as dads do, about the bulletin board in a German train station, where a traveler could leave a message for a friend arriving in the same city.

    How delightful, especially when one of the places you could meet would be the 24-hour cartoon cinema!

    • welltailored permalink*
      December 16, 2009 6:55 pm

      Let’s find a 24-hour cartoon cinema to meet at the next time I come see you in NYC!

  2. Patrick permalink
    December 17, 2009 12:12 am

    The teens hanging around the Notificator suddenly make me hesitant. Worried; could they, maybe, be violent? Will you still see my message? These damn teens probably went straight to dictaphones. Or passed high-school notes among themselves; yes. I still have a stack of them, even though I’m 41. (ugh) . Excuse me while I clean out my drawers. Cleaning, cleaning…


    • welltailored permalink*
      December 17, 2009 11:15 am

      The teens would *totally* add rude words to the message you were trying to politely, responsibly leave for your mother!

  3. December 21, 2009 3:55 pm

    Oh my god. We are so on the same page when it comes to technology. The only good use I can see for Twitter is to force upper management at my company to it for all corporate communications. And they could only tweet ONCE A DAY.

    • welltailored permalink*
      December 21, 2009 3:58 pm

      A good friend is helping revamp a university course she recently graduated from, and mentioned adding Twitter to the list of ways students can participate in class discussions. At first, I thought this was sorta neat…the idea being that shy kids or reluctant hand-raisers could post “tweets” about the class and take part when otherwise they would sit out of discussions. Then, the more honest, bitchy part of me reconsidered…more like, “Oh come on! Kid! You are a grown-up now! Speak up or sit there like a bump on a log learning sweet FA. It’s your call!” Sigh. Not only am I behind the times, I am a big meanie. Heh.

      • Kurt permalink
        December 22, 2009 7:14 pm

        As a young curmudgeon and college professor, I wholly agree with your take on Twitter in the classroom. I think it’s partly borne of some gen-ex pride of having survived the education system just fine without any technology more sophisticated than a DOS word-processing program and a dot-matrix printer. Though I fully realise it’s the equivalent of the ‘I had to walk 10 miles to school in a blizzard with no shoes and a cord of wood on my back’ complaint of generations before me.

        God knows what I’ll be complaining about when I’m 70.

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