Tuesday, November 2, 2010

No sense of place

I have recently been reading some Patricia Highsmith novels* from the 1950s and 60s. Three communication media - the old-fashioned letter, the (usually local) newspaper and the telephone - all play very significant roles in these stories. (There is also the occasional telegram - or cable - and books also appear.)

Highsmith's characters spend a large proportion of their allotted pages planning and writing letters, posting letters, organizing the material for writing more letters, waiting for letters and speculating as to why no letter has come or, more rarely, receiving a letter and analysing the contents. The local newspaper is good for keeping track of whether the body has been found or what stage the police have reached in their investigation. And the telephone looms as large as in the movies of the period.

In their way, each of these media enhances the sense of place and/or the sense of distance from other places. Even the telephone signals the sense of distance by the involvement of an operator.

Patricia Highsmith's world may not be the real world of the 1950s and 1960s - it is a slightly claustrophobic and chilling distillation of reality - but it reflects important truths about the crucial role communication technologies play in weaving a cultural milieu and defining a locality.

As traditional letters disappear from the communication landscape, as print is replaced by digital devices, and the telephone operator is remembered only in the "Operator! Operator!" of old films and TV, we are inexorably losing our sense of place.

*The blunderer, This sweet sickness, Those who walk away and The tremor of forgery.