In today’s wireless world, my wife and I come close to being Luddites.
We don’t go around smashing cell phones, smart meters and mobile apps. We just tend not to use them. Joan’s cell phone is often turned off; mine stays on, but I forget to charge it.
When I got my phone, I asked for the simplest model possible. No camera, no music, no texting, no games—just voice.
“We don’t have anything like that,” shrugged the guy at the phone store.
In this deluge of instant wireless communication with everyone everywhere, I find it hard to remember that even land lines are a relatively recent innovation. My parents never had a phone of any kind until 1947. In the 1970s, I visited Prairie homes that still connected to their neighbours using the ubiquitous barbed wire fences.
But we humans devised ways of communicating at a distance, long before telephones.
Aboriginal peoples in North America sent smoke signals. African tribes pounded out messages on hollow logs.
As recently as my own childhood, Scouts learned semaphore and Morse code.
The telegraph transmitted Morse code messages. I’ve heard that some operators had a touch as recognizably individual as the human voice.
Morse code could also be sent by flashing lanterns. Or beating drums. Or flapping flags.
We used flags for semaphore, a system of visual spelling. But you could just wave your arms in recognizable patterns. As a boy, I got so proficient at semaphore that I won prizes at Scout camps. I once used semaphore to decipher the coded message hidden in a drawing in Missy Lee, one of Arthur Ransome’s children’s books.
Ransome also introduced me to marine signal flags.
Even on an ultra-modern cruise ship, you may still see a flag with six vertical blue and yellow stripes when you approach port. It means “Pilot wanted.” A plain yellow rectangle—the “Q” flag—stands for quarantine. Perhaps there were sick people on board, but more commonly it just meant the ship had not yet been cleared by customs and health authorities.
Some signals become so universal that even warring nations honour them. Everyone agrees that SOS (di-di-dit dah-dah-dah di-di-dit) is a distress signal.
Such signals work only when everyone involved shares a common understanding of their meaning. Imagine the chaos if some airline arbitrarily decided that “Mayday! Mayday!” should mean “Oh, look at that pretty cloud.”
And then there are social signals. Where meanings are rarely as clearly defined. I’m quite capable, for example, of reading a bubbly personality as flirtation, or a frown of concentration as disapproval. Fortunately, I’ve learned not to assume that my interpretation is the only possible one.
Many social conflicts, I suspect, result from misreading the signals of a larger society.
Societies change. Norms change. On marriage, on sex, on employee loyalty, on debt, on punishment. The signals that one generation considers obvious may be read quite differently by a younger population.
At both the personal and societal levels, we need to be careful when reading signals. And not leap to premature conclusions.