Monday, January 19, 2009

Semiotic Ghosts

When I was a kid in Dunedin, Florida, I walked around - a lot. I didn't have a bike for years, but I rarely missed the wheels; everything was pretty well close at hand. One day, I was looking for the location of something or other, and I asked an old man for help. He pointed a finger upward and said, peering beyond the horizon, "It's over yonder." I might have been about eight, but even then I recognized how cool it was to hear the word "yonder." None of my friends said it, none of the adults I knew said it either.

"Yonder" is one of those words that float hazily outside of culture, one of those semiotic ghosts William Gibson wrote about in his short story, "The Gernsback Continuum." "Yonder" is recognizable in its vivid ability to conjure up a sense of time and place, but it is no longer present - except for a few older folks willing to carry it with them. It resides in and out of memory, like a fading sign once painted on a wall. Remembering my first encounter with the world "over yonder," I keep my eyes sharp for similar semiotic ghosts: things once alive and real and now ephemeral: recognizable but slightly removed from reality, shimmering before they fade forever.

Like telegrams.

I hear that Western Union sent its last telegram in 2006. Wow, I wish I'd ever sent or received one of those those things. I don't think I've ever held a telegram in my hand. I visualize a yellow or orange piece of paper, maybe with strips of typed writing glued onto its surface, the strips roughly aligned but somewhat askew. Of course, I see the word "STOP" separating clauses (supposedly one-character periods cost money but the four character STOP was free. Does that make any sense to you?). Telegrams represent an age of nearly-instant communication before cheap long distance and well before electronic mail. Telegrams were a tangible form of expression, even now resting in attics and basements around the world. I know what telegrams were. I remember them. Just not personally.

What's a swell semiotic ghost that you remember?

Please feel free to post your reply. And remember: semiotic ghosts are generational creatures. Yours will be different from mine. Squint your eyes just a bit. What do you see?

Learn More: STOP -- Telegram era over, Western Union says:

Read More: William Gibson's The Gernsback Continuum


Anonymous said...

You used the word "folks" in your post, and it occurs to me that at least at my point in the socio-generational stream, that word's a lot like "yonder."

I also read a funky article once predicting that within our lifetimes, the words "clockwise" and "counterclockwise" will become semiotic ghosts as generations are born that will see analog clocks only in their grandparents' attics.

Jeff Sockwell said...

Typewriters. Once the coolest thing a kid could play with on those Saturdays when my dad took me to the office, they started out as primitive mechanical devices with a keyboard like that of a pipe organ. That changed with the invention of inexpensive miniaturized electronics. The machines in my dad's office were IBM Selectrics, the kind with the removable ball that allowed a person to use different fonts. Then came the word processor, like some Jurassic beast, to usher out the obsolete Cretaceous typewriter and begin our dependence on machines to spell for us.

Now we all sit down to the computer and cannot fathom using a single-purpose device for anything, while the old Selectric sits in a museum and dreams of the days when humans could differentiate between "their", "there", and "they're".

Andrew Wood said...

Analog clocks! Typewriters! So far, so swell. Thanks!

Anonymous said...

My first car, a 1980 AMC Spirit, had an 8 track tape cartridge in it. At the time of purchase I might have thought it was cool but I'm sure I was never able to purchase any cartridges as they were already on the down-hill slide of being obsolete. Thankfully good old pops had a few that he would let me borrow to fill the void of not listening to the AM radio.

Vinnie said...

I have a slide projector at my office. About 3 or 4 years ago, I heard on NPR that Kodak was making their last slide projector that week.
For decades it was the ultimate example of tedious to say that neighbors wanted to show you slides of their vacation. I am not a fan of Power Point per se, but it has saved countless neighbors across the nation from having to see slides of vacations. Now folks just send them to their friends and family via facebook or email or shutterfly. Theoretically, the people they send them to are more interested in the pictures than the neighbors would have been.

Andrew Wood said...

Wow - that brings back distant memories.

I haven't seen a slideshow in 25 years! I remember the show involved my wealthier folks than us traveling to some national park.

It seemed like paradise.