Monday, August 1, 2016

How Tweet it is


Communication was not as instantaneous in 1956 as it is today, 60 years later. I started to work as a bicycle messenger for Western Union that year and I learned how the system worked. If a mother in El Dorado wanted to send some money to her son in Houston, she would come to our office and fill out the papers, handing over the money to be “sent” and a small fee. The teletype operator would then communicate with the Houston office and a messenger there would deliver a notification to the son’s address as specified that some money had “arrived” at the Western Union office and the son would go pick it up. Similarly, I delivered a lot of money order notifications in El Dorado and people were glad to see me coming.

Occasionally, however, some would get the idea that you could “wire” other things besides money. One lady wanted to wire a gallon of buttermilk to her son in California. I appreciated the kindness of the clerk as she explained to the lady that we did not actually attach things to a wire and send them along. But my point is that communication was a little more difficult 60 years ago than it is today. For example, I had occasion to deliver messages to the telephone company from time to time and witnessed an expansive switchboard, staffed by a dozen or so operators. The hum of voices in that place let you know that people were calling each other regularly in El Dorado: “Operator,” “Number please?” “That line is busy,” “Just a moment,” “That phone is out of service,” etc. These were the days before El Dorado had dial phones and people relied on the operator to connect them to their party.

Our pre-dial phone number was 2226J. I was with Pop, who was not a frequent telephone user, when he had to make a call home from a local lumber company. He picked up the phone and waited until he heard the kind voice on the other end say “operator.” Then Pop gave the number as he had it in his head, “Three deuces, a six and a Jack.” Apparently, the operator had no problem with his way of presenting the number and he was connected forthwith.

Sixty years later we have cell phones, e-mail and other Internet features such as twitter. These possibilities for instantaneous communication can and do get people into trouble. When I was a kid, “secure” communication meant going on a camping trip to the Ouachita River and talking to buddies, knowing that what was said on the river stayed on the river. If any of those communications were “leaked” the consequences were far beyond ostracizing, even to the point of exile and loss of reputation. Kids learned to be careful with what they said because of the severity of the consequences for breaching confidences.

Thus, we were thoughtful before speaking, pondering the possible consequences of our words. That is why I like good poetry. The artist struggles until the words are exactly right for expressing, as far as possible, an accurate sensory impression of what is in her head. Today, all of us, especially those who would lead, must think before speaking, writing or tweeting. How tweet it is!

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