Saturday, January 26, 2013
A Manti Te'o Story set in London, 1941
My spouse and I are doing research on emotional responses to a variety of 19th and 20th century communication technologies. While doing that, we've naturally been thinking about how past responses compare to contemporary ones. There are a lot of interesting comparisons. But one that is particularly topical is the Manti Te'o incident which resonates with a 1971 Readers Digest article titled "An Affair By Phone"(1) (which is a condensation from the book Another Self) by James Lees-Milne. The Readers Digest article is only three pages long and I'm tempted to copy and paste it straight into this blog. But given the copyright restrictions, a short summary and a quote or two is all I can offer:
In September of 1941, Mr. Lees-Milne was recovering from a bombing raid in London and was trying to telephone a friend but accidentally got connected with a woman with whom he started chatting. As Lees-Milne recalled:
"She was enchanting. The late hour and our anonymity broke down all those absurdly conventional reserves which usually hedge two people during preliminary meetings after an introduction. But when I suggested that we ought to introduce ourselves, she would not have it. It might spoil everything, she said."
That chat turned into an extended telephone relationship that was predicated and enhanced by the medium in which it was conducted:
"Never a night passed when we were both in London that we did not telephone, no matter how late. I would look forward to our next talk the whole preceding day. If I went away for the weekend and was unable to telephone she complained that she could hardly get to sleep for loneliness."
In spite of this dependency, Lees-Milne never persuaded the woman to meet in person because she thought that if they met in person and "found we did not love, as then we did, it would kill her."
The affair continued for some time until one night the woman's phone line went dead. Lees-Milne investigated and found out that the woman had been killed in a direct hit during the London bombings.
Ok, it's not quite the Manti Te'o story but the narratives are similar enough to evoke comparison: both relationships take place entirely over a network, the network, in turn, simultaneously enhances and limits the relationship. And of course, both stories end in tragedy (although one tragedy may be true while the other is imaginary).
There are other more recent historical precedents to the Manti Te'o's including the 2010 film Catfish. But "An Affair By Phone" serves to remind us that online relationships are not of recent vintage: they've been around for some time--and some embody genuine emotion.
Footnote 1: "An Affair by Phone" (Readers Digest, August 1971. Vol 115, p54-56)