Technology Is Telepathy, and Other News


On the Shelf

A man fixes telegraph wires during the U.S. Civil War, ca. 1863. Image via Public Domain Review.


  • In the nineteenth century, as communications technologies proliferated and spiritualism spread across the U.S., people began to wonder, not unreasonably, if telepathy was real, and if our dreams could be used to predict the future. It’s an idea that retains a certain currency even today. For instance, last night I dreamed I lost my thirty-day unlimited MetroCard on an escalator; I spent two hours looking for it, riding the escalator again and again all hunched over. I experienced this search in real time. Now all I have to do is lose my MetroCard in real life and whammo, I can claim to be a telepath. But wait, back to the nineteenth century: Alicia Puglionesi writes, “Despite skepticism from some scientists, people took the idea of spontaneous, unconscious mental transmission quite seriously, as a possibility and as a danger, in an age when powerful ideas crisscrossed the nation through new and mysterious channels. From mass print to the telegraph to the railroad, burgeoning communication systems collapsed time and space through increasingly rapid connections. They brought unprecedented economic growth, creating new forms of investment and trading that depended as much on information flow as they did on the movement of commodities. Such precipitous connectedness also posed a threat to the socioeconomic order: it allowed laborers to organize, abolitionists and suffragists to rally. Dangerous ideas could spread uncontrollably, and many worried that hardware might not limit their range. The line between technology and telepathy blurred, with medical men like William Carpenter explaining the nervous system as a telegraph and extending its reach beyond the individual body; he believed that ‘nerve-force,’ as a form of electricity, could ‘exert itself from a distance, so as to bring the Brain of one person into direct dynamical communication with that of another.’ ”

  • Annie Julia Wyman is fixated on a passage from John Berger: “A man walks along a stony beach. As he goes, he turns a single stone upright. He leaves it, standing there, on its end.” But she can’t remember where it came from; only that she’s been thinking about it for years. “I can’t find it anywhere, not in my books or in the library or on the internet. But maybe it’s enough that I remember it—or, more precisely, maybe it’s enough that I remember why I remember it. It might seem like there’s nothing there. But like so many of the stories Berger wrote and co-wrote and recorded, the story of the man on the beach bursts into meaning at the slightest pressure.”
  • It’s very important to not not read. You should not not read like your life depends on it. Sheila Liming remembers when “a colleague of mine (a creative writer pursuing an M.F.A. in fiction) told me that, as a writer, he didn’t believe in reading: ‘I’m a writer, I make things,’ he told me, ‘Whereas you’re a reader, you consume things.’ In saying this, my colleague appeared to be drawing a sharp line between the twin skill sets of the literary arts curricula and, at the same time, reinforcing a puzzling division of labor. Such binaries lend credence to and support for so-called ‘producerist’ ideologies, all too common today, that would have us value innovation over use and, thus, production over education … Reading, far from being a useless activity, is beginning to look like an act of resistance. The work of reading generally goes unrewarded: tenure committees don’t care about it; grants are not won by it; and riches do not wait in store for the patient and dedicated reader. But this is precisely its value. Reading is unique in being a form of production that resists monetization and the logic of structural incentives. It produces things like experience, knowledge, discomfort and communion.”