Calling All Telegraphers

The invention of the telephone was an epic win for humanity.

The components of what eventually became the practical, functioning telephone we’ve known and loved for a century and a half were invented by different people over the course of many decades, and a patent for the device was given to Alexander Graham Bell in March of 1876. It’s pretty much been sunbeams and rainbows for the world of communication since then.

That is to say, it’s been great for everyone except telegraphers. Life has sucked a little more each year for them.

Because although the telephone has enabled long-distance, vocal communication for the vast majority of humanity, it has also very quickly replaced the need for telegraphic systems. The once wondrous world of intercontinental beep-transmission seemed less and less magical after families and businesses learned they could actually speak to each other across those same gaps. As a result, an entire industry collapsed, and a group of highly skilled telegraph operators found themselves in dire straits.

What does one do when one’s skill set ceases to be useful?

This is a question craftsman after craftsman has been forced to ask himself as time rolls forward and technology catches up to the ambitions of amateurs everywhere. Photographers, once protected from the dabblings of laymen, now face competition from everyone with a mobile phone. Designers, once ensured work through their mastery of obscure tools and ability to physically manifest ideas, now adjust their prices to account for the growing number of sideline pixel-pushers.

Many of the walls that previously existed between educated, seasoned professionals and their greenhorn counterparts have fallen, and the result is a melee between the old and the new; the classics and the contemporaries.

Of course, it isn’t all wailing and gloom. Many pros see the evolution of technology as an opportunity, not a death sentence, and despite the sorrowful cries of their peers, they stride forward uninhibited by those who would have them raise new walls or otherwise impede the competition. They do this because they know something their peers don’t seem to get: they’re still professionals with skills, they just have to leverage different skills, moving forward.

What this means is that a professional photographer can still be differentiated from an amateur, even without the technological advantage they no longer have. I can take a nice shot of a mountain or a portrait of a friend, but my phone, or DSLR, or point-and-shoot camera, is a much more useful tool in the hands of a pro. Through years of experience, they’ve refined techniques that I lack, and they understand how best to use light and contrast and composition to achieve something beautiful.

Similarly, while a designer may once have paid rent based on their ability to handle an X-ACTO knife, now they are paid for their ideas, and their ability to elegantly implement them for different media, delivery systems, and demographics. A untrained designer can certainly produce something beautiful, but it’s unlikely they’d be able to easily replicate the subtlety, cleverness, and effectiveness found in the work of a professional.

The same applies to business models.

Publishing is a field that is experiencing massive upset, and the big name publishers know there are barbarians at the gates. As one of those barbarians myself, I can tell you the outlook is good for smaller presses and for indie authors wanting to make a mark of their own. The old walls between old-school pro and new-school usurper have fallen.

That being said, the smartest of the old guard are keeping themselves relevant by making use of the new technologies available. They’re creating smaller offshoot presses, and reaching out to different types of authors. They’re speaking to people like me and the other authors at Asymmetrical Press about publishing our work; they see the writing on the walls, and they understand that dealing with the non-standard is an opportunity, not something to be feared.

Of course, with any change, be it in technology or business models or whatever, you’ll hear moaning from a large number of established players who want nothing more than to rest on their laurels and enjoy the fruits of their long labor. And in a lot of cases, yes, it’s not fair, and it’s very sad that they paid so much for an education that’s no longer relevant, or spent years climbing a ladder that has been replaced by an escalator. At times I even commiserate to a degree: I feel bad for them because I’ve been in the same place many times, and have had to quickly pivot or be left in the dust kicked up by people who haven’t worked nearly as hard as I have to get where I am.

I feel bad for them, but then I leave them to their fate. Why? Because if they’re not willing to step up and do what’s necessary, then they’ve chosen their path. It’s more important to them to be comfortable than for their industry, and the world as a whole, to progress. I cannot get behind that kind of attitude. Yes, it’s sad, but because you don’t want to learn a new skill set or a new way of doing business, you would stagnate the world? Place a ceiling on what everyone else is allowed to do and experience and benefit from because you’re uncomfortable with change?

Put in another way: you’re a telegraph operator that would hold back the advent of the telephone because it’s ‘not fair’ that you’re being forced to try something new? Forced to learn skills applicable to the new technologies of your industry, or segue into something completely different?

Shame on you, if that’s the case. Shame on you for both missing an opportunity — limiting the amount of value you’ll put into the world, intentionally — and for deciding that your need to be comfortable is more important than the continued growth of society.

Look around and see these changes as the opportunities they are, and own them. Be a part of the movement, and help instigate the next big change. It’s best to be at the head of these kinds of waves, because if you’re not, you may miss out on the momentum they catalyze.

Better to move a little faster than you’re comfortable with than to drift listlessly out at sea, uncertain where everyone else has gone, confused as to why you’re having to paddle so hard to find land.

Update: April 10, 2017

I still agree with the main point of this, but I do think it’s a more complex issue. Especially when you get into other industries, like, say, coal mining, there’s a lot fewer options in terms of what careers you segue into, next. Creative industries are a different creature than extractive or manufacturing industries, and consequently, although I still think it’s not good to hold back progress for the sake of maintaining old standards, I also think that there’s an argument to be made that part of that progress should be ensuring that as many people as possible are able to progress along with the rest of the world, and that means ensuring they’re able to put food on the table.