Love on a Wire: Identity and Romance through Technology

As part of our Public History New Media course, this week I read “Telegraphy’s Corporeal Fictions,” an article by Katherine Stubbs that examines the extremely niche genre of telegraphic fiction in the late nineteenth century. Stubbs perceptively shows how fiction is used to reinforce existing societal structures that feel under threat – such as the ways male authors clearly recognized the presence of women in telegraph operation, but wrote them out of their positions of independence. Even when fictive female telegraph operators weren’t treated as dangerously unsuited to their profession, the plots typically called for them to fall in love and be married, often to another telegraph operator, safely removing them from the working sphere and restoring a male-centric order.

Yet another strand she discusses is even more interesting: female-authored fiction of the time deals with the intersection of technology and social relationships in a surprisingly nuanced manner. In Wired Love: A Romance of Dots and Dashes, author Ella Cheever Thayer presents a seemingly conventional romance story that happens to take place through the telegraph. Yet the involvement of technology isn’t just incidental. The only means by which the protagonist and the object of her affection interact are through the language and format of the telegraph, first semi-anonymously through public telegraph lines, and then through a private line from one bedroom to another. Even when in the same physical space, they express their love through tapping out Morse code, an affectation intended as romantic but which borders on comic (Analogous perhaps to two shy people on a date, texting each other on their phones rather than speaking). But the point is: the technology doesn’t just mediate the relationship… It’s completely integrated. The relationship seemingly cannot exist outside the form and function of telegraphy.

Thayer recognizes that the constructed identities that appear through the telegraph line do not correspond perfectly to real life. Physically meeting one another comes with an inevitable degree of disappointment. This theme is expressed even more starkly in “Playing with Fire,” another work also by a female author. The story begins as a comedy of errors, where telegraph operator Rena Chesley on a lark decides to impersonate a man and strike up a flirtation with another female operator. As is the nature of romantic comedies, the feelings become real, and Rena regretfully realizes she’s falling in love. But when the two eventually meet, the plot twists yet again. The operator she had been flirting with was actually Herbert, a man who had also been impersonating a female operator for the sake of a joke, but found himself inextricably drawn to Rena’s male persona. The most impressive thing about this story is its ending: while seemingly setting itself up for a happy ending, the author refuses a simple resolution. Neither Rena or Herbert could be wholly satisfied with the true identity of the other. As Stubbs aptly puts it, “the circuit has permanently queered things.”

This consideration of romantic relationships as experienced through technological mediums led me to reconsider a different work of fiction, connected to a different form of new media. Digital: A Love Story is a 2010 interactive narrative that sets itself in the nascent ‘Internet’ of 1988, experienced through a dial-up modem and local BBSes. Just as late nineteenth-century fiction saw something transformative in the limitations and rigid form of telegraph channels, Christine Love utilizes the distinctive format of late ’80s technology to explore a relationship that could only exist in that environment. The game is free to download here, and takes probably a maximum of two hours to play if you’re interested; from this point on I’m going to briefly discuss a major plot point that serves as a spoiler.

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From the very beginning, the game takes advantage of interactivity to more directly draw the player into the experience. In addition to the choice of an online pseudonym, it asks for a real name, and uses both. However, the connection between a real-life identity and a digital persona quickly becomes a more tenuous link, and when the course of the game draws the player into a relationship with another user known as *Emilia, gender is implicitly considered irrelevant. A later revelation only emphasizes that irrelevance: *Emilia is not human, but an artificial intelligence existing on the rudimentary network that BBSes and ARPANET provide. It’s in one sense an ultimate extension of the earlier fictive works of the telegraph: falling in love with a constructed identity that only exists in the context of the technology, but this time without any real human existing at all.

While many considerations of technology accurately recognize that any technology is socially constructed, changed and adapted as its users impart their own needs and dreams upon it, these works of fiction also recognize that this process is reflective. Technology also reshapes users through its structure and functioning – if not constituting a new existence for the user entirely. The telegraph and primitive computer networks are striking because there’s such a strong degree of intermediation, but even new media connections that are more ‘transparent’ have a large impact upon the way that we as humans interact with one another. The advent of widespread Internet availability might be the most transformative shift yet; the true impact is just tremendously difficult to see. As the line between physical and digital blurs, a divide still remains. On the internet, nobody knows you’re a dog, but even when we willingly sacrifice anonymity, can anyone know that a dog is you? Or is it simply impossible for our digital and physical identities to perfectly overlap? The answer in fiction at least is conflicted. While technology can enable the creation of vibrant, emotional, romantic connections, such a relationship struggles to exist outside the channels of its formation.

“Telegraphy’s Corporeal Fictions,” by Katherine Stubbs is found in New Media 1740-1915 by Lisa Gitelman and Geoffrey B. Pingree.

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